By James V. Grimaldi and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 11, 2008
An Alaska state legislative investigator found yesterday that Gov. Sarah Palin abused executive power when she and her husband engaged in a campaign to oust her former brother-in-law from the state police force.
The 263-page report released in Anchorage also found that while Palin was well within her right to fire Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan, his dismissal came in part because he refused to remove her sister's ex-husband from the Alaska State Troopers.
Investigator Stephen Branchflower found evidence that Palin actively joined her husband, Todd, in pursuing a personal vendetta against the trooper and that she used state employees to try to settle a score in a bitter family feud.
"Governor Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda, to wit: To get Trooper Michael Wooten fired," said the report released by a bipartisan legislative committee.
Defenders of Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, called the report's release, coming less than four weeks before Election Day, a politically motivated attempt to damage the ticket of Sen. John McCain and Palin. In a statement, McCain spokeswoman Meg Stapleton said the Palins "were completely justified in their concern regarding Trooper Wooten given his violent and rogue behavior."
The report, which makes no specific recommendation for further action, will go to the Republican-dominated state legislature.
Branchflower said that Alaska's ethics code discourages state employees from "acting upon personal interests in the performance of their public responsibilities and to avoid conflicts of interest in the performance of duty." He identified 18 events to substantiate an effort over an extended period of time to get Wooten fired.
"She had the authority and power to require Mr. Palin to cease contacting subordinates, but she failed to act," the report said.
Palin had been accused of dismissing Monegan, a career law enforcement official, after he rebuffed attempts by her, her husband and cabinet officials to reopen an investigation of Wooten's conduct. Wooten was involved in a divorce and custody dispute with Palin's sister, Molly.
The report said Palin knew that "the disciplinary investigation was closed and could not be reopened. Yet she allowed the pressure from her husband, to try to get Trooper Wooten fired, to continue unabated over a several month-period of time."
Branchflower investigated the charges for six weeks, interviewing 19 people, after he was hired by the Joint Legislative Council. He concluded that while Monegan's rebuff of the entreaties played a role in his firing, other concerns such as budgetary issues and trooper vacancies also were factors.
"I find that, although Walt Monegan's refusal to fire Trooper Michael Wooten was not the sole reason he was fired by Governor Sarah Palin, it was likely a contributing factor to his termination as Commissioner of Public Safety," Branchflower wrote. "In spite of that, Governor Palin's firing of Commissioner Monegan was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority to hire and fire executive branch department heads."
Branchflower also dismissed the Palins' assertions that they were afraid of Wooten because of threats they said he made. "Such claims of fear were not bona fide and were offered to provide cover for the Palins' real motivation: to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family related reasons," he wrote. Palin said Wooten made death threats against her father.
Branchflower's report initially had been due at the end of the month, but state Sen. Hollis French (D), who managed the investigation, said its release was moved to yesterday so it would not come on the eve of the Nov. 4 election.
The McCain-Palin campaign had called Monegan's firing a "straightforward personnel decision" that has become "muddied with innuendo, rumor and partisan politics."
Monegan said yesterday that the report made him feel "relieved a little bit that my gut feeling of why I was fired was to some degree validated."
The legislative committee unanimously began the investigation in July. Palin had promised to cooperate, but after becoming McCain's running mate, she changed course, saying the inquiry was politically tainted. She declined to answer Branchflower's questions, and she started a parallel investigation before the state personnel board, which she appoints. Republican lawmakers sued to stop the probe, but state courts rejected the request.
The 14-member Joint Legislative Council began meeting behind closed doors around 9:20 a.m. yesterday, reviewing the document -- which included transcripts of interviews with Monegan and others -- to determine whether they would vote to release it to the public.
Branchflower had identified more than 200 pages that could be made public, but the investigative findings and supportive documents were said to exceed 1,000 pages. Many of the private documents were personnel records.
Several Palin supporters wore red clown noses and waved balloons at lawmakers, saying "Welcome to the circus" as they arrived for the meeting. And dozens of reporters and camera crews from across the nation camped outside the council meeting for more than five hours waiting for the report's release.
In a separate review, the attorney general, whom Palin appointed, found that half a dozen officials had made about 24 phone calls regarding Wooten. Interviews with figures 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 domestic turmoil.
Todd Palin, in written answers to the investigator, acknowledged that he talked to numerous state officials about the trooper, saying: "Wooten was a threat to our family. He was dishonest. He was not a good man." Todd Palin said that his intense interest was too much for the governor. "At some point Sarah told me to 'drop it' and stop talking about the issue and I discussed it with her much less often," he said.
Sarah Palin wrote e-mails that harshly criticized Alaska state troopers for not firing Wooten and ridiculed an internal affairs investigation of his conduct.
Monegan showed copies of the e-mails to The Washington Post and turned them over to investigators to support his contention that he was dismissed for not firing Wooten.
"This trooper is still out on the street, in fact he's been promoted," said a Feb. 7, 2007, e-mail sent from Palin's personal Yahoo account and written to give Monegan permission to speak on a violent-crime bill before the state legislature.
"It was a joke, the whole year long 'investigation' of him," the e-mail said. "This is the same trooper who's out there today telling people the new administration is going to destroy the trooper organization, and that he'd 'never work for that b****, Palin.' "
The McCain campaign issued a 21-page analysis, along with dozens of e-mails, to support its argument that poor job performance justified Monegan's firing.
The Republican report said the Palins had "good reason" to raise concerns about Wooten because he has a "long history of unstable and erratic behavior, including drinking beer in his squad car, killing moose illegally, using a Taser on his 10-year-old stepson and threatening to kill a member of the Palin family," as well as "claims of being above the law due to his trooper status."
John Cyr, the head of the union that represents the state troopers, called the campaign's report about Wooten "patently ridiculous." He added: "I would say a violation of the public trust strikes me as a relatively serious offense for a sitting governor, especially one who ran on truth, trust and transparency."
Wooten, in an interview with The Post last month, contradicted Palin's assertion that he once threatened her father during an argument with Palin's sister.