By Kimberly Kindy and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 25, 2009; A03
ANCHORAGE -- Sarah Palin, who rose from obscurity to become Alaska's governor three years ago, began her career as a combative whistleblower crusading against state political corruption. She accused GOP leaders of violating ethics laws, then publicized details of the confidential investigations.
Now, as Palin prepares to step down Sunday, 18 months before the end of her term, she vows to resurrect her early crusader image on a national stage, even as she complains that she has been saddled with what she calls "frivolous" ethics complaints and legal bills.
"I'm not leaving the governorship because of any particular ethics complaint. Rather, I have explained that the millions of dollars spent by the state and the diversion of resources to address politically inspired records requests, personnel board costs and wasting staff time is unnecessary and harmful to the state," Palin said in written comments to The Washington Post. "I will take the battle nationally and I won't shy away from challenging the powerful, the entrenched, the corrupt and anyone standing in the way of getting our country back on the right track."
Palin, 45, sees state ethics reform as her lasting legacy. "We cleaned up previously accepted unethical actions," she wrote in a farewell column to Alaskans on her Web site.
Yet as she steps down, she and her attorney are demanding that whistleblowers be sanctioned for sharing details of pending investigations of her conduct. This week, her attorney threatened to sue whistleblowers for violating secrecy laws, and Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell (R), who will replace her, asked the state's attorney general to take steps to "prevent leaks" in ethics probes.
Many complaints against Palin have been dismissed, a few are still pending, and several resulted in critical findings. But with accusations still swirling in the blogosphere, some observers say the ethics issues will continue to dog Palin as she repositions herself as a national Republican Party leader.
"You can't be a crusader immune from the slings and arrows of the fight, and then cite those attacks as justification for surrendering an elected office," said Paul Erickson, a GOP presidential strategist. "If she thought it was tough in Juneau with a bunch of petty, harassing complaints, then she has no idea what awaits a serious presidential contender."Taking Accusations Public
Palin first became a serious force six years ago, as a recently retired mayor of Wasilla. She gained wide appeal by blasting corruption in Juneau and oil industry influence.
In August 2003, after being recently appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, she acted on a tip. She dug up documents showing that fellow commissioner Randy Ruedrich, the state GOP chairman and a former oil executive, violated Alaska law by using state resources for political work. Palin took her findings to the attorney general and for weeks peppered investigators with inquiries. Then she went public, shaping a crusader image that helped propel her to the governorship. Day after day, she voiced her frustrations before investigators finished their work and called for Ruedrich's resignation. Palin's relentlessness and proof of ethics violations drove Ruedrich to resign and pay a record $12,000 fine. Ruedrich remains the state GOP chairman.
"As the saying goes, the most dangerous place you can be is between a grizzly sow and her cub," said longtime Alaska Republican operative Roy Burkhart. "But now I have to change that -- it would be between [Palin] and a television camera."
Burkhart said he advised Palin that publicly discussing details of ongoing ethics probes could violate state law. "She didn't listen," he said. "It's how she created her political career, by trying high-profile Republican public officials in the media."
Palin also targeted then-Alaska GOP Attorney General Gregg Renkes, who resigned in 2005 in an ethics flap.
In her written statements, Palin said she does not regret going public with accusations against Ruedrich and Renkes.
"I publicly questioned blatant conflicts of interest," Palin wrote. "There is a difference between filing frivolous lawsuits and ethics complaints and overwhelming the state system with requests which are nothing more than 'opposition research.' "
Palin soon faced her first ethics controversy. Records surfaced showing that as Wasilla mayor, she used city computers and employees in her unsuccessful 2002 lieutenant governor campaign. Palin called the charges a "smear" campaign, and effectively fought them off.
Activists joined Palin's crusade, among them Anchorage resident Andrée McLeod. Palin saw McLeod, a Republican, as a government accountability champion, according to e-mails. Palin routinely praised McLeod's aggressive tactics, writing in one e-mail, "Ya' done good again!!!," and signing some, "Love, SP."
"Holy Moly you are powerful regarding getting the word out to the press about questionable activity!" Palin once wrote. McLeod, 53, unsuccessfully ran for Anchorage mayor after she failed to get a city permit to sell falafels from a street cart. Palin supported her 2004 run for the state House, saying on a campaign flier: "Though she ruffles a feather or two now and again, this intelligent Alaskan is exactly what we need during these tough times."Problems as Governor
In 2006, with the support of McLeod and others, Palin knocked off the incumbent Republican governor by promising to clean up Juneau. But in early 2007, a distraction arose when Palin and her husband, Todd, pressured then-Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan to remove the governor's former brother-in-law from the state police force. When Monegan did not, Palin offered him a demotion and he refused, and he was removed from his state job. The matter led to a bipartisan state investigation that dragged into fall 2008, when Palin campaigned as the running mate of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz).
Palin was accused of improperly billing the state for per diem expenses while she stayed at the family home in Wasilla. She was ordered to pay back taxes but has not disclosed the amount.
Meanwhile, Palin and her top aides used private Yahoo e-mail accounts to debate policies and conduct other state business. (A state lawmaker plans to introduce a bill outlawing the practice.) Palin also copied her husband on hundreds of such correspondence, public records later showed, raising questions about his role in state business.
These records were unearthed by Palin's one-time ally: McLeod.
After Palin was sworn in, McLeod had sought a top administration job but had been turned down. Since then, Palin has questioned McLeod's motives. McLeod filed the first in a series of records requests and ethics complaints against Palin.
And just as she and Palin had once done, McLeod went public with her findings, disregarding confidentiality laws.
After McCain tapped Palin, hailing her as a "fellow maverick," reporters jetted to Alaska to learn more about her. McLeod led them to four banker's boxes brimming with Palin's redacted e-mails and other state records. "She was elected on the basis of setting a standard, a higher standard, but she is far from being an ethics reformer," McLeod said this month.
Palin has labeled McLeod "the falafel lady" and in a recent Twitter post called her a "serial complainer." So far, officials estimate spending nearly $2 million and about 7,000 hours of staff time on Palin inquiries.
Palin enters the fray almost daily on her Twitter page, writing this month: "Public & private resources wasted today w yet another frivolous false ethics charge, I'll send presser. So sorry, Alaska."
Alaskans have been both riveted and surprised that Palin could not deflect the determined gadflies, said Gregg Erickson, a Juneau economist and longtime political observer. "Most Alaskans see [McLeod] and the rest of them as a bunch of wackos," he said, "and Sarah is someone who quickly rises to the bait."
Judy Nadler, a government ethicist at Santa Clara University, said Palin's short, troubled tenure illustrates that a politician who builds a reformer image may face higher public expectations.
"If you say you are the ethics guru and that you are to going to make sure things are squeaky clean, and you get caught compromising that position, it is going to hurt you," added Nadler, a former Santa Clara mayor. "She asked for this scrutiny and the public gave it to her."
Palin said she is unconcerned. "I will not worry about some 'political image,' " she said. "The people will judge me on my substance and my message, not my 'image.' "
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report. Rucker reported from Washington.