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.

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    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.
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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.

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.

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“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.”

The McCain-Palin campaign had a similar reaction after the report was released.

“Today’s report shows that the Governor acted within her proper and lawful authority in the reassignment of Walt Monegan,” said a statement issued by local campaign spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton, who was part of a public-relations effort that involved almost-daily “Truth Squad” news conferences condemning the investigation and the officials involved in it, including Monegan. “The report also illustrates what we’ve known all along: this was a partisan-led inquiry run by Obama supporters and the Palins were completely justified in their concern regarding Trooper Wooten given his violent and rogue behavior. Lacking evidence to support the original Monegan allegation, the Legislative Council seriously overreached, making a tortured argument to find fault without basis in law or fact,” Ms. Stapleton’s statement said.

But if anyone has politicized the investigation, it was the McCain-Palin campaign, say several lawmakers.

“There’s near-universal disgust with what the McCain campaign has done up here to local people,” says state Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat. “They needed to pitch a story to the Lower 48, and unfortunately, they had to twist the facts to do so.”

Many Alaska officials have come to the defense of Monegan, who grew up in a Native village near the Yupik Eskimo community of Bethel before launching a law-enforcement career in Anchorage, where he eventually served as police chief.

“I don’t want to get into a big political fight ... but I cannot allow a fellow Alaska Native to have his reputation tarnished and used as a political football,” said Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, in a Sept. 27 opinion column in The Anchorage Daily News. “No one has done more to address the law enforcement needs of rural Alaska than Walt Monegan.”

As for legislative responses to the report, options are limited, says Senate President Green. The legislature is not currently in session, so a censure resolution seems unlikely, she says. It is possible that someone will use the report as the basis for a separate ethics complaint and an additional investigation in the future, but there is no crime charged, she says. Lawmakers may pass some bills to tighten controls over executive personnel matters, she says.

Representative Gara, for one, is not seeking any punishment. “I really just want an apology. I want those responsible in the McCain campaign to apologize to all the people they’ve tried to trash in the process,” he says.

The troopergate episode has contributed to some erosion in Palin’s once-stratospheric popularity in Alaska, according to local pollsters. Her in-state approval rating has dropped from a high of about 85 percent to 65 percent, says Anchorage pollster and political consultant Ivan Moore. “I can anticipate that her rating will drop off into the 50s, maybe even the low 50s,” Mr. Moore says. Still, Palin’s approval ratings remain high overall, and she has a stong base of backers – currently at 45 percent – who give her very high marks, he says.

The ethics woes for Palin may not be over.

At the same time that lawmakers on Friday were hearing Branchflower review his findings, a state Superior Court judge ordered Palin to preserve e-mails, dating back to the time she took office, that she sent and received on her private Yahoo account. That order came in response to an Oct. 2 lawsuit filed by a former Palin supporter who believes the governor and her husband have been using private e-mail accounts to keep their activities out of the public eye, in violation of state public-records laws and standard public information practices.

“Nobody in their right mind would ever think of using a private e-mail address to conduct state business consistently,” says the plaintiff, Anchorage activist Andree McLeod, a Republican who says she has become disenchanted with the governor.

Ms. McLeod says she does not know how many private e-mails contain government-related information. “What I do know is a secret government is a corrupt government,” she says.

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