Palin and Troopergate: A Primer

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l. to r.: Al Grillo / AP; J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten, left, and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin

What's this all about?

On July 11, 2008, Walt Monegan, the public safety commissioner (or top cop) for the state of Alaska, was fired. On the face of it, there was nothing wrong with that. He was a Palin appointee, and she had the right to fire him. But at first with prodding from his union, and then on his own, Monegan began telling people about the persistent pressure he claimed to have felt, in the months leading up to his dismissal, from the governor, her staff and her husband to get rid of a state trooper named Mike Wooten. Wooten happened to be Palin's former brother-in-law and had been involved in a bitter divorce and custody dispute with Sarah Palin's younger sister Molly McCann since 2005. Monegan's refusal to remove Wooten was, he said, part of what led to his firing. If Monegan's accusations are true, it would be a serious abuse of the power of the governor — not to mention a major blow to her image as a good-government reformer — suggesting that she used her office and the office of many of the state's top functionaries to settle an old family score. On Friday, the retired Alaska prosecutor investigating whether Palin abused the power of her office in the matter asked state lawmakers for the power to subpoena 13 witnesses and the phone records of a key Palin aide. The request is expected to be granted.

What does Palin have against Wooten?

Among other family entreaties, Palin had sent a long, angry e-mail to Colonel Julia Grimes, the head of the Alaska state troopers, on Aug. 10, 2005, listing more than a dozen complaints against Wooten, ranging from allegedly making death threats against the family and Tasering his 10-year-old stepson to running down and killing a wolf with his snow machine and trying to weasel out of a $5 fine at the landfill. The sources Palin cites include a private detective the family employed to look into Wooten's life. Court records from 2005 show that the judge in the divorce case was concerned by the aggressiveness even then with which the family was trying to get Wooten fired, saying from the bench that "the bitterness of whatever who did what to whom has overridden good judgment."

Is Wooten that big of a menace?

He certainly seems like he was at one point, based on the incidents the Palin family compiled. After all, who Tasers a 10-year-old boy, even if it was the boy's idea in the first place, and even if the Taser was on a low setting? But the state troopers investigated all the allegations and let Wooten off with just a 10-day suspension (the police union eventually got it down to five). As of this July, the custody case was still unsettled. And the fact that Wooten served on the Alaskan equivalent of a SWAT team shows that at least his immediate supervisors trusted him. He has served as a state trooper without apparent incident for at least a couple of years since his suspension.

Was the governor's family ever in danger?

Wooten allegedly told McCann that Palin's father would "eat a f___ing lead bullet", a comment that Palin says she and her son overheard. But Palin's most consistent claim, that her staff were just worried about her family's safety, rings hollow (as does, even more so, the other argument she made — that Wooten was such a lout that he would hurt trooper recruitment). Several years had passed, and even though Wooten had a domestic violence restraining order against him, he had never physically threatened the governor, her husband Todd or their children.

Is Palin lying?

Hard to say. She has already issued a few seemingly contradictory statements about the matter. Just after Monegan's firing, she said that "never was there any pressure put on Commissioner Monegan to hire or fire anybody." A month later, though, she held a surprise press conference, which revealed that key staffers and even her husband had made more than two dozen contacts with Monegan about Wooten, contacts she insists she hadn't known about. It turns out an increasingly wary state police had recorded one of those conversations, which is fairly explicit in its intent. The call, from Palin ally Frank Bailey to a state trooper, intimates that Palin was otherwise happy with Monegan except on the Wooten issue: "I'm telling you honestly, you know, she really likes Walt a lot, but on this issue, she feels like it's — she doesn't know why there is absolutely no action for a year on this issue. It's very, very troubling to her and the family. I could definitely relay that," Bailey said.

Wasn't Monegan fired for poor performance?

Palin says so. She claimed in an Aug. 13 press conference that she was disappointed in budget issues, recruitment and Monegan's handling of rural bootlegging. On this last issue, however, there is a contradiction with statements she had made three weeks earlier, when she told local television station KTVA that she thought Monegan would make a great director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board: "I recognize that Walt's interest in the area certainly could be put to good use," she said, "as he could concentrate exclusively on a couple of issues that were his interest, that being bootlegging and alcohol problems in rural Alaska." Monegan has also been praised by Alaskan women's groups for his work against domestic violence and violence against women, and at a conference in late April, Palin herself lauded him for his work. "An indication of our commitment is the participation here of my — our — Department of Public Safety commissioner Walt Monegan's participation here and all of his hard work, and I want to publicly thank him," Palin said, according to a videotape obtained by ABC News.

Is Palin cooperating with the investigation?

If she was before she was named John McCain's running mate, she doesn't seem to be now. Only a few weeks ago, Palin had promised full cooperation with the legislature — "Hold me accountable," she told Alaskans — including testifying in front of the inquiry, which is also looking into allegations that her staff improperly accessed Wooten's personnel file. She also requested that the state attorney general conduct his own investigation alongside the legislature's probe. But Thomas Van Flein, the lawyer she had to hire because the attorney general, Talis Colberg, also called Monegan about Wooten and therefore could be a witness, had Palin take the unusual step this week of filing an ethics complaint — against herself. Ethics complaints are heard by the three-member Personnel Board, whose members are all Palin appointees, and Van Flein has claimed that the entire legislative investigation should be stopped because it has become a partisan affair. The legislature, however, has refused her calls to stop their investigation in lieu of the ethics complaint. In the past week, seven witnesses from Palin's staff said through their lawyers that they would back out of previously scheduled Senate depositions. The Anchorage Daily News said in a recent Op-Ed that if Palin truly stands for transparency, then she should tell her intensely loyal staffers they have to testify, or else. So far, there's no sign that she'll do that. In fact, Palin's recent moves suggest that she is hoping to run out the clock so that no report can be issued before Nov. 4. According to a Bloomberg News story, Alaska senior assistant attorney general Michael Barnhill has threatened to try to quash any such subpoenas, citing "a clause in the state's constitution that protects individual reputations from McCarthy-like smear tactics."

Is the investigation just partisan politics?

The judicial committee that started looking into Troopergate is actually composed of eight Republicans and four Democrats, though not all Republicans in Alaska are fans of Palin. But the chairman, Hollis French, is a Democrat who made several ill-advised comments in media interviews that suggested he had already concluded Palin was lying, including mentioning an "October surprise" and using the word impeachment. So the McCain campaign and Palin's attorney and allies in Alaska have been trying to paint the investigation as a partisan witch hunt. French and his committee have tried to address those concerns — he says he didn't subpoena Palin because he believes she'll eventually cooperate and because he wants to "de-escalate" the tension. The committee has also moved up the scheduled release date of its report from Oct. 31 to Oct. 10, claiming it doesn't want any of its findings to come out so close to Election Day.

What does this mean for the presidential race?

As they say, it's not the crime but the cover-up that could be most damaging. Wooten is not a highly sympathetic character — something Palin knows firsthand — and the public could perhaps understand why Palin wouldn't want him carrying a gun around. But Monegan is the one who lost his job. And by initially denying that there was any pressure, only to reveal that most of her senior staff, her husband and the attorney general had in fact been pressuring Monegan, Palin did far more damage to her carefully cultivated maverick image that is working so well in the campaign. If anything, Palin appears to be moving even further away from transparency in the matter now that she's on the national ticket. If the investigator's findings are anything short of a full exoneration for Palin — assuming the findings do indeed come out before the election — the McCain campaign will continue to make the case that it's all just another partisan attack and just more politics as usual.

(See photos of Sarah Palin campaigning here.)