By James V. Grimaldi and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 31, 2008
For the past several years, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, has been embroiled in a bitter family feud that has drawn in the state police, the attorney general, the governor's office and the state legislature.
A bipartisan state legislative panel has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate whether Palin improperly brought the family fight into the governor's office. The investigation is focusing on whether she and her aides pressured and ultimately fired the public safety commissioner, Walter Monegan, for not removing Palin's ex-brother-in-law from the state police force.
Interviews with principals involved in the dispute and a review of court documents and police internal affairs reports reveal that Palin has been deeply involved in alerting state officials to her family's personal turmoil.
Palin has said she did not pressure Monegan or fire him for not taking action against her former brother-in-law. A spokesman for Sen. John McCain's campaign, who asked not to be identified because the matter is under investigation, said Palin's actions were merely intended to alert Monegan about potential threats to her family from her sister's ex-husband, Mike Wooten.
The trouble between Wooten and the governor's sister broke into the open after an alleged incident in February 2005. Palin told an internal affairs investigator that she overheard on a speakerphone Wooten arguing with her sister and threatening to kill their father. Fearful for her family members' lives, Palin said she drove to her sister's house and watched the argument through a window.
"Wooten's words were, 'I will kill him. He'll eat a [expletive] lead bullet, I'll shoot him,' if our father got the attorney to help Molly," Palin said in an e-mail she wrote in August 2005 to the chief of the state police. "I heard this death threat, my 16-year-old son heard it (Track Palin), Molly heard it, as did their small children. Wooten spoke with his Trooper gun on his hip in an extremely intimidating fashion, leaving no doubt he is serious about taking someone's life who disagrees with him."
According to the e-mail, the alleged argument occurred after Palin's sister, who uses her previous married name of Molly McCann, questioned Wooten about her husband attending a trooper-sponsored event in January with another woman. There is no record of police charging Wooten for the alleged threat. Through his attorney, Wooten declined to comment for this article.
On the day that the governor's younger sister filed for divorce -- April 11, 2005 -- Palin's father, Chuck Heath, a retired teacher then in his late 60s, called state police to file a complaint about Wooten. He handed the phone to his daughter Molly, who told state police that her husband had threatened her father's life and had drunk beer while driving his police vehicle home. Later, she told police that Wooten had shot a "cow moose" without a license and Tasered his 10-year-old stepson.
A month later, Sarah Palin, then chairing the state oil and gas commission, was interviewed by a state police investigator about the argument. She told investigators that when she arrived at the house she could see Wooten "waving his arms." She said she thought, "He is gonna blow it." She said she left for a meeting without calling police.
On Aug. 10, 2005, Palin sent an angry, three-page e-mail to Col. Julia Grimes, head of the state police. "My concern is that the public's faith in the Troopers will continue to diminish as more residents express concerns regarding the apparent lack of action towards a Trooper whom is described by many as 'a ticking time bomb' and a 'loose cannon.' "
Palin noted, "Wooten is my brother-in-law, but this information is forwarded to you objectively," and asked Grimes to treat the information objectively.
Keeping Wooten on the police force, Palin wrote, "would lead a rational person to believe there is a problem inside the organization."
She characterized Wooten as a hard-drinking bully who held himself above the law and threatened her family.
"Wooten was counseled by my husband to join Molly in acting civilly and with maturity during their divorce -- for the sake of the nine kids they and Wooten's girlfriend have between them all -- and who are adversely affected by their circumstances. Wooten evidently took umbrage with the advice and that day told Molly she'd better 'put a leash on your sister' or he'd 'bring Sarah Palin down.' "
Palin added: "I feel strongly that Wooten is a loose cannon. He's a ticking time bomb, as others describe him, and I am afraid his actions do not merely reflect poorly on the State, but his actions may cause someone terrible harm . . .
"Is it acceptable for an Alaska State Trooper to use his badge and power in these aforementioned ways?"
She concluded, "Our faith is waning."
The divorce went to trial in the fall of 2005 while the state police internal investigation was pending. Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock reviewed the complaints filed by Palin and her family. At trial on Oct. 27, 2005, the judge expressed puzzlement about why the family was trying to get Wooten fired, since depriving the trooper of a job would harm his ability to pay family support to Palin's sister.
"It appears for the world that Ms. McCann and her family have decided to take off for the guy's livelihood -- that the bitterness of whatever who did what to whom has overridden good judgment," Suddock said in an audio recording from the trial on TV station KTUU's Web site. "Aesop told us not to slay the goose who lays the golden egg. For whatever reason, people are trying to slay the goose here and it tends to diminish his earning capacity."
On March 1, 2006, Grimes sustained the allegations, saying, "The record clearly indicates a serious and concentrated pattern of unacceptable and at times, illegal activity occurring over a lengthy period, which establishes a course of conduct totally at odds with the ethics of our profession." Wooten was suspended for five days.
That fall, in a surprise, Palin defeated Gov. Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary and went on to win the general election. She took office in December 2006 and appointed Monegan, who'd just retired as Anchorage police chief after five years, to be public safety commissioner, a cabinet position.
In January 2007, Palin's husband, Todd, a commercial fisherman, oil company worker and champion snowmobile racer who was now first gentleman of Alaska, invited Monegan to the governor's office. Todd Palin asked Monegan to look into the Wooten matter. Monegan did and later told Todd there was nothing he could do because the matter was closed.
Monegan told The Washington Post that Palin called him a few days later on his cellphone, and that he told her the same thing. She brought it up again in February 2007 in the state capitol building and Monegan warned her to stay at arm's length.
Monegan said Palin mostly backed off, but kept raising the matter indirectly through e-mails. In the fall of 2007, Monegan said he alerted her to a bad jury verdict against a trooper in rural Alaska, and she replied by mentioning Wooten, but not by name.
"She said troopers like this one and my former brother-in-law, or that trooper I used to be related to, are the things that make people not trust troopers," Monegan told The Post yesterday.
Monegan said he also got telephone calls from three Palin appointees, including her then-chief of staff, Mike Tibbles; Commissioner Annette Kreitzer of the Department of Administration; and Attorney General Talis Colberg.
Colberg said at a news conference this year that he was one of staffers who called Monegan. Colberg said he called after Todd Palin asked him about "the process" for when state troopers make death threats against the first family.
"I made an inquiry and was told by Commissioner Monegan that there was a process in place and that it was handled and it was over. And I reported back to the first gentleman that there was nothing more that could be done," Colberg said.
With each of the calls, Monegan became more concerned and warned each caller about exposing the state to litigation from Wooten. Monegan told Tibbles: "This is not your issue. This is something I am supposed to handle. Every time we talk about this, it is discoverable. Do you want this trooper to own your house?"
Meanwhile, Todd Palin continued to collect evidence against his former brother-in-law and lobbied for his dismissal, records and interviews show. In April 2007, he told the Anchorage Daily News that he met just once with Wooten's boss, Col. Audie Holloway, to give her pictures of Wooten driving a snowmobile when he was out on a worker's compensation claim.
The legislative investigation is looking into whether information was leaked from Wooten's personnel file.
In an interview yesterday, Alaska Deputy Attorney General Michael Barnhill said that a member of the governor's staff made at least one telephone call to Holloway about the snowmobile incident reported by Todd Palin. Diane Kiesel, Alaska state personnel director, called because she believed the troopers should know there might be a violation of law, Barnhill said.
"People in the administration made contact with the Department of Public Safety to deal with the worker's compensation file," he said.
Barnhill said the attorney general's office does not think the governor's staff should be banned from making calls about Wooten to his superiors.
In July, Palin's chief of staff told Monegan he was being fired because the governor wanted to "go in a different direction," Monegan said.
Monegan went public, alleging that his firing was connected to his failure to remove Wooten. The state legislature launched its investigation, and the governor asked the attorney general's office to conduct an internal investigation.
Barnhill said the review, made public two weeks ago, found that half a dozen officials had made about two dozen phone calls regarding Wooten. But only one call was determined to be improper, a tape-recorded conversation between Palin's chief of boards and commissions, Frank Bailey, to a police lieutenant.
In the call, Bailey said, "Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, 'Why on earth hasn't this, why is this guy still representing the department?' "
Palin suspended Bailey with pay, saying she knew nothing about the call.
Palin still faces the review by the legislature.
State Sen. Hollis French (D) said that both Republicans and Democrats authorized the hiring of a former prosecutor to determine whether Palin "used her public office to settle a private score." French described the prosecutor, Steve Branchflower, as a "straight shooter,"
French said the investigation of the popular 44-year-old governor had been criticized throughout the state until about two weeks ago, when the governor's office released the audiotape of Bailey.
Such evidence points to a violation of Wooten's privacy, French said.
"We're seeing clues or signs that matters from his personal confidential file were being shared to generate talking points against the trooper as drums being pounded to get him dismissed," French said yesterday.
The legislative report is due in October.
Staff researchers Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.