By James V. Grimaldi and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is an ethics reformer under an ethics investigation that is plowing through private domestic matters.
Palin is under investigation to determine whether she pressured and then fired the state police chief in July because he refused to dismiss her former brother-in-law. At the time, the governor's younger sister was involved in a bitter divorce and child custody dispute with the man, a state trooper. A bipartisan committee of the state legislature voted unanimously to hire a retired prosecutor to investigate. His report is due in October.
The firing of state Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan has unearthed a stream of private details about the governor, her husband and her family. The state probe is also focusing on a half-dozen top state officials accused of trying to drive trooper Mike Wooten from the force.
Critics say the episode -- dubbed Troopergate in Alaska -- cuts against Palin's reputation as an ethics crusader who holds even her own party accountable.
"It undercuts one of the points they are making that she is an ethical reformer," said state Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat who is managing the $100,000 investigation.
The McCain campaign supported Palin, saying: "Governor Palin has been fully cooperative in this situation and has nothing to hide. She has been a leader and proven reformer, demanding accountability and transparency from Alaska's government which resulted in landmark ethics legislation."
The domestic dispute entered the public arena when the governor's sister filed for divorce from Wooten on April 11, 2005.
The same day, the governor's father, Chuck Heath, contacted state police with several allegations against Wooten: using a Taser on his 10-year-old stepson; shooting a moose without a permit; and drinking beer while driving a patrol car.
Eighteen months later, Sarah Palin became Alaska's first female governor.
Gov. Palin's husband, Todd Palin, met with Monegan in January 2007, a month after his wife took office, to say that the trooper was unfit for the force. Monegan also said the governor sent him e-mails, but Monegan declined to disclose them, saying he planned to give them to the independent prosecutor.
Palin initially denied that she or anyone in her administration had ever pressured Monegan to fire Wooten. She said she had raised the matter with Monegan just once, relaying the allegation that Wooten made a death threat against her father.
But this summer, Palin acknowledged that a half-dozen members of her administration had made more than two dozen calls on the matter to various state officials.
Monegan, 57, a former chief of the Anchorage Police Department, said in an interview Friday that during his 19 months on the job the governor repeatedly mentioned Wooten but "never directly asked me to fire him."
Monegan said Todd Palin told him that Wooten "shouldn't be a trooper."
"I've tried to explain to him," Monegan said, " 'You can't head-hunt like this. What you need to do is back off, because if the trooper does make a mistake, and it is a terminable offense, it can look like political interference.'
"I think he's emotionally committed in trying to see that his former brother-in-law is punished."
Monegan said he was also contacted by three other Palin-appointed officials, including the attorney general, regarding the trooper. Each time, he said, he told the administration officials that he would keep an eye on the trooper, but that unless he violated a rule, nothing could be done.
In a TV interview in July, Todd Palin confirmed that he had talked with Monegan but said he was just "informing," not pressuring.
At a news conference Aug. 13, the governor said, "I do now have to tell Alaskans that such pressure could have been perceived to exist, although I have only now become aware of it."
That day, Palin's office released a recording of a call made in February by Palin's chief of commissions, Frank Bailey, to a police lieutenant. Bailey complained about Monegan's lack of action against Wooten. Bailey said Palin "really likes Walt a lot, but on this issue . . . she doesn't know why there is absolutely no action for a year on this issue. It's very, very troubling to her and the family."
John Cyr, chief of the troopers' union, said he was "shocked and disappointed" at McCain's selection of Palin. "It goes well beyond the fact that she is under a cloud of ethics investigations. She's fired the only commissioner who dared to stand up and say we need to do more to make Alaska safe."
Palin's chief of staff fired Monegan on July 11, telling him Palin wanted "to go in another direction," Monegan said.
"I am not, and don't want to come across as, a disgruntled employee," Monegan said. "I was trying to protect her. When I was let go, I was a little surprised. There was not a warning shot or anything."
Monegan said complaints about Wooten first came to him on Jan. 4, 2007, a month after he started on the job. Todd Palin, a commercial fisherman, laid out a dossier he and a private investigator had collected.
"He asked me to look into it, so I told them I would," Monegan said. "I had it compared with the internal investigations file. There was no new evidence, no new complaints."
Monegan called Todd Palin back and said there was nothing he could do. A few days later, Gov. Palin called Monegan on his cellphone. "I explained to her there was no new evidence, the issue was closed," Monegan said. "She also was unhappy with that."
Wooten, reached at a trooper's office in Palmer, Alaska, declined to comment. Cyr said Wooten has "a spotless record" and no allegations in his file other than those filed by the governor's family.
Monegan and Cyr said that Wooten's wife had obtained a permit to hunt moose but balked when she saw the prey. She handed the gun to her husband, who killed it, Monegan and Cyr said, adding that the couple then took the moose to her parents' home, butchered it and ate some of it.
Wooten said he used the Taser on his 10-year-old stepson when the boy asked him to try it on him, Monegan and Cyr said.
The investigation into Wooten sustained the allegations regarding the moose hunt and the Taser. The drinking charge was unsustained in an initial investigation, but a police commander reversed the decision. Documents say Wooten was reprimanded and suspended. "Wooten was not a model trooper," Monegan said.
The governor raised the issue again in February 2007 during the legislative session in Juneau. "As we were walking down the stairs in the capitol building," Monegan said, "she wanted to talk to me about her former brother-in-law. I said, 'Ma'am, I need to keep you at arm's length with this. I can't deal about him with you. If need be, I can talk to Todd."
Staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Alice Crites contributed to this report.