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Post 'troopergate,' Palin still popular in Alaska, just not as much

Many Alaskans seem more upset with the McCain campaign's tactics during the ethics probe than with the governor.

By Yereth Rosen / October 12, 2008

Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska addresses a rally at Brush Run Park near St. Clairsville, Ohio, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008. The chief investigator of an Alaska legislative panel concluded Palin unlawfully abused her power as governor by trying to have her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper.

Scott McCloskey/The Intelligencer/AP

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Anchorage, Alaska – It started in July as an obscure inquiry into Gov. Sarah Palin’s firing of a popular and much-admired public safety commissioner. But after Governor Palin was selected as the Republican nominee for vice president, the controversy known as “troopergate" – so named because Palin was accused of using her office to take revenge on a state trooper who was once married to her sister – ballooned into a matter of international interest.

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The investigation, Palin critics said, belied her claims of being an ethics reformer and illustrated poor judgment by John McCain in selecting a running mate after so little vetting. But Palin supporters characterized the investigation as harassment orchestrated by Sen. Barack Obama’s Alaska supporters and as an unfair attack on the governor for her concerns about a former in-law she considered to unfit to wear a law-enforcement badge.

On Friday, a bipartisan panel of state legislators released a 263-page investigative report that concluded Palin had abused her power by summoning the authority of her office to pursue a personal grudge, in violation of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.

“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, written by Steve Branchflower, a retired state prosecutor hired by lawmakers to conduct the investigation.

The report outlined a pattern of actions taken by the governor, her aides, and especially her husband to punish Mr. Wooten, a trooper who had committed a series of infractions in past years, including an illegal moose hunt, but whose disciplinary case had been closed before Palin became governor. It detailed a long-running campaign to mete out punishment to Wooten, sometimes for seemingly petty matters, such as driving his children to school in a trooper vehicle, a practice for which he had obtained his superiors' permission.

Palin was within her rights to fire Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan because he, like any cabinet member, was an at-will employee subject to dismissal for any reason, Mr. Branchflower said in his report. But the evidence showed that Commissioner Monegan was sacked at least in part for refusing to give in to pressure exerted by Sarah and Todd Palin to fire the governor’s ex-brother-in-law, Branchflower concluded.

The Palins' claims that Wooten posed a threat to the governor and her family were not credible, Branchflower said. “I conclude that such claims of fear were not bona fide and were offered to provide cover for the Palins’ motivation: to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family related reasons,” he said.

Senate President Lyda Green, a Republican from Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, says the investigation shows a serious ethical breach.

“I understand that when you have a personal interest in something, it’s very tempting to do everything you can," she says. "But there’s still that very, very fragile balance of power that has to be observed. This is probably a really good reminder of ways not to do business.”

Palin supporters had rejected the report even before it was issued.

“Our governor’s the best thing that’s happened to this state since I’ve lived here,” says David Boyle, an Anchorage protester who converged on the legislative offices the morning of the meeting in which the report was released. Like other Palin supporters who crowded into the corridors and then lined the sidewalk outside the building to chant the governor’s name, in alternation with “U-S-A,” Mr. Boyle wore a clown nose and carried a balloon twisted into the shape of a kangaroo – a slap at what he and his colleagues considered the circus atmosphere surrounding a “kangaroo court.”