Palin family values

The damning Troopergate report shows that Gov. Palin is not only unethical but vindictive.

By Gary Kamiya
Published October 14, 2008 10:47AM (EDT)

Sarah Palin claims to be a reformer who is going to fight corruption and clean up Washington cronyism. But a bipartisan report establishes beyond a doubt that Palin herself indulged and abetted an illegal and unethical personal vendetta carried out by her husband. Sending her to clean up Washington is like sending the Hatfields and McCoys out to restore civility in rural America.

On Friday, a Republican-dominated Alaska legislative panel unanimously voted to release a report that found that Palin had abused her power as governor by allowing her husband Todd to engage in a lengthy campaign, run out of her office, to try to fire her ex-brother-in-law, Michael Wooten. "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," the report concludes. It also finds that there is evidence that Palin herself actively participated in the campaign.

The GOP claims to be the party of "family values." It turns out they meant Soprano family values.

A closer look at the 234-page report (pdf) reveals a textbook case of abuse of official power. Sarah and Todd Palin's behavior throughout is so egregious that it is more worthy of a banana republic colonel and his consort than the governor of an American state and her spouse.

According to the report, authored by independent investigator Stephen Branchflower, Governor Palin and Todd Palin, as well as numerous other Alaska state officials, engaged in a coordinated effort to pressure Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan to fire State Trooper Mike Wooten, who had been in an acrimonious divorce and custody battle with Palin's sister, Molly. After Monegan refused to fire Wooten -- which would have been illegal and unethical -- Palin fired Monegan. Because there is a very modest paper trail that supports Palin's contention that she fired Monegan for cause, and because the law allows the governor to fire appointed officials at will and without any reason, the report reaches the ultra-cautious conclusion that Palin's firing of Monegan was legal and proper. Readers of the report can decide for themselves how legitimate this conclusion is. But the main fact remains: The report found that Palin abused her power by allowing her husband to illegally pressure Monegan and other officials to fire Wooten.

The day Molly filed for divorce in April 2005, Sarah's father, Chuck Heath, accused Wooten of various offenses, including illegally killing a moose, using a low-charge taser on his stepson, and drinking a beer while driving a squad car. A police administrative board investigated the charges in 2006, and Wooten was disciplined but not fired, which enraged the Palins. Before she was elected governor, Palin called a high-ranking police official, asking how it was possible that Wooten had not been fired and urging her to take the charges seriously.

Once Sarah Palin took office in early 2007, her husband Todd began agitating for Wooten's firing. According to the head of her security detail, the self-described "First Dude," or the "First Gentleman" as the report calls him, spent about half his time sitting at a long conference table in Gov. Palin's office. His main, and as far as one can tell from the report, sole occupation: to get Wooten axed.

One of Todd Palin's first calls was to Monegan, the former Anchorage police chief whom Palin had just hired as public safety commissioner, lavishing praise on him as "an experienced and well-rounded police professional." Monegan had been on the job less than a month when Todd Palin called him to request a meeting. When Monegan entered the governor's office, he found Todd Palin sitting at a table with three stacks of documents in front of him. Palin asked Monegan to be sure to review the complaints and make sure investigators hadn't missed anything.

The import of the meeting was clear to Monegan: The Palins wanted Wooten fired, and if he didn't fire him, he himself would be axed. "I had this kind of ominous feeling that I may not be long for this job if I -- if I didn't somehow respond accordingly," Monegan told Branchflower. But as a career law enforcement officer, Monegan was uneasy with what he was being nudged to do. "I certainly believe in rules and regulations and laws and whatnot. And there is a certain part that you will not step over," Monegan said.

As that quote indicates, Monegan comes across in the report as a worldly-wise cop, a guy who has seen a thousand divorce cases and understands why the Palins are angry and frustrated, but also believes that you can't just throw out laws and rules in pursuit of a personal vendetta.

Monegan looked over the investigation and found that it had been properly carried out and nothing was missed. He informed Todd Palin of this. He also told Palin that it would be a technicality to charge Wooten with illegally shooting a moose, since Wooten's wife Molly was also present and had a permit. Moreover, if Wooten was charged, she'd have to be charged too, for letting him use her permit, and Sarah Palin's father, who butchered the moose, would also have to be charged. According to Monegan, Todd Palin responded, "I didn't want that. I only want Wooten charged." Monegan's comment: "Well, we're not that way. If there's somebody who's guilty, we have to hold everybody accountable for their actions and decisions."

Following this conversation, Gov. Palin herself called Monegan and asked why Wooten had not been fired. After the call, Monegan again felt that his own career would be in jeopardy if he didn't fire Wooten.

Ironically, it was Monegan himself who shortly thereafter saved Palin from personally continuing to pursue her unethical and illegal pressure campaign on Monegan. After Monegan dropped by her office in Feb. 2007 to suggest she accompany him to wish a senator happy birthday, she said on the steps, "I'd like to talk to you about Wooten." Monegan said he said, "Ma'am, I need you to keep an arm's length at this -- on this issue. And if you have further complaints, I can deal with Todd on it." He added, "And she goes, 'That's a better idea.'"

Soon thereafter Gov. Palin's chief of staff, Mike Tibbles, called Monegan and asked to meet with him. Tibbles brought up Wooten. Monegan told him that the investigation had been completed and the issue was closed. (In fact, as the report noted, once a disciplinary investigation had been closed, it could not legally be reopened.) He also told Tibbles that as a veteran police officer who had been sued several times, it was his understanding that if Wooten decided to sue, the conversation they were having was discoverable, and both of them could be liable. "You don't want Wooten to own your house, do you?" he asked Tibbles. Tibbles immediately dropped the subject.

But the Palins weren't finished siccing various high-ranking officials on Monegan. Next to call the hapless commissioner was Department of Administration Commissioner Annette Kreitzer, who wanted to know why Wooten had not been fired. Monegan repeated the warning he had given Tibbles, noting that he thought she "should know better than this," since "the personnel rules, regulations ... emanate from her shop." Kreitzer dropped the subject.

But knowledge of rules and regulations were apparently no hindrance to Palin administration officials who were under orders to get rid of Wooten at all costs. For the next call came from none other than the Alaska attorney general, Talis Colberg, who said, "Hi, Walt. Tell me about this Mike Wooten." Once again, Monegan was forced to warn Alaska's highest-ranking law enforcement officer that their conversation was potentially discoverable. He added, "Will you tell the boss -- it's only going to spill out. The more people get involved in this, the more people are going to -- the more chance this is going to come out in the public." To which Colberg said, "Okay, I'll talk to them." Monegan said that it was obvious to him that Colberg was referring to Sarah and Todd Palin.

The report goes on to detail more than a dozen other attempts made by Todd Palin and various Palin administration officials and aides to get Wooten fired. Those contacted included policemen, the chief of staff to the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the deputy commissioner of public safety. On several occasions, Palin cronies reported having seen Wooten engage in what they claimed were illegal activities, including driving his children to school in a patrol car; on each occasion, it turned out that Wooten had received permission from his superiors.

The sorry saga hit surreal bottom in May 2008, when Monegan, preparing for a Police Memorial Day celebration, dropped off a color photograph of a state trooper for Palin to autograph. Unbeknownst to him, the trooper was -- Mike Wooten. A furious Palin canceled her appearance at the event and sent her lieutenant governor in her place.

The photo incident may have been the last straw, for Monegan was soon gone. In July 2008, Palin aide Frank Bailey called Charles Kopp, who had applied for Monegan's job in 2006, and asked if he was interested in it. Kopp testified that Bailey said, "Todd is really upset with Monegan." The photo incident clearly played a large role.

Although Palin claimed she fired Monegan for legitimate reasons, including insubordination, budgetary disagreements and not being a team player, she hardly seemed to take that much interest in his successor: She never spoke with Kopp before he was hired. Fifteen days later, Kopp resigned when it became known that a letter of reprimand for sexual harassment had been placed in his file by his former employer.

In defense of their actions, the Palins have claimed that they feared that Wooten would to try to kill them. Right-wing defenders of the Palins have seized upon this argument, trying to paint Todd and Sarah as merely engaged in legitimate self-defense. But this claim -- which would in any case not justify their illegal and unethical behavior -- is not credible. The report cites the testimony of a policeman who worked on their security detail, who said that he had specifically asked both of them if they were afraid of any individual, and both said no. Todd Palin later did name Wooten as a potential threat, but the report notes that when pressuring subordinate employees to fire Wooten, Todd Palin never mentioned fear, saying only that Wooten was a bad trooper, that he had only received a slap on the wrist, and so on. Moreover, after taking office, Gov. Palin had the size of her security detail reduced. Finally, the report points out that firing Wooten would not make the Palins safer and could easily make them less safe if he decided to retaliate.

The report cautiously concludes that Monegan's refusal to fire Wooten was not the only reason Monegan was fired by Palin, but it was a "substantial" and "likely a contributing" factor. Nonetheless, it finds that Palin was within her rights to fire Monegan, because that action was within her legal powers and she needed give no reason at all for it. One need hardly point out that this is scarcely a ringing endorsement of her behavior with regard to Monegan. But the report condemns Palin for allowing her husband to pressure subordinates to get Wooten fired. As it notes, "each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust."

Palin refused to cooperate with the investigation, and high-ranking officials in her administration ignored subpoenas. (On Oct. 6, several suddenly decided to honor them, too late to be included in the report. Had they not stonewalled, the report might possibly have been even more damning.) Her campaign has claimed that it was a partisan witch hunt (an argument that contradicts the claim that the report exonerated her), because the panel is headed by a Democrat -- ignoring the fact that it's dominated by Republicans.

Palin has denied that there was any pressure on Monegan to fire Wooten, either from herself or any member of her administration. On August 13, she said that "pressure could have been perceived to exist, although I have only now become aware of it." Somehow the fact that her husband, sitting a few feet away from her, worked the phones for months trying to get Wooten fired seems to have escaped her attention.

Palin's response to the report simply denied its findings. "I'm very very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing ... any hint of any kind of unethical activity there." This baldfaced lie was echoed by McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis, who told Fox News, "The reality is there was absolutely no wrongdoing found in the report ... no violations of any kinds of laws or ethics rules." It takes real chutzpah to lie that brazenly. Call it the Straight Crock Express.

After reading this report, only two conclusions are possible. Either Sarah Palin doesn't understand anything about law, conflict of interest or the most rudimentary government ethics principles, or she doesn't think they apply to her. It's hard to know which is more disturbing.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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