Friday, October 10, 2008

Troopergate Report Released

Well, at long last, the Alaska Legislative Council voted unanimously to release the report of its Stephen Branchflower, the former prosecutor it hired to investigate Troopergate. The abbreviated "public" report is 263 pages, and can be found in pdf format at

I've only read the summary of the findings in the first part and the explanation of the findings in the middle, but it it comes across as objective and fairminded. At times it even sounds generous to the Palins in terms of understanding their frustrations while, at the same time, it ultimately concludes that Sarah Palin overstepped some bounds by using her position and contacts to press for Wooten's firing. The tenor is not one of condemnation or outrage at Palin's conduct, but rather a matter-of-fact account of who said what to whom and an explanation why those conversations and meetings created conflicts of interest.

The report's specific findings were as follows:
1. For the reasons explained in section IV of this report, I find that Governor Sarah Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act. Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) provides:

"The legislature reaffirms that each public oficer 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."

2. I find that, although Walt Monegan's refusal to fire Trooper Michael Wooten was not the sole reason he was fired by Governor Sarah Palin, it was likely a contributing factor to his termination as Commissioner of Public Safety. In spite of that, Governor's firing of Commissioner of Monegan was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority to hire and fire excecutive branch department heads.

3. Harbor Adjustment Service of Anchorage, and its owner Ms. Murleen Wilkes, handled Trooper Michael Wooten's workers' compenastion claim properly aand in the normal course of business like any other claim processed by Harbor Adjustment Service and Ms. Wilkes. Further, Trooper Wooten received all the workers' compenation benefits to which he was entiteld.

4. The Attorney General's office has failed to substantially comply with my August 6, 2008 written requirest to Governor Sarah Palin for information about the case in the form of emails.
Report at p.8.

Jumping ahead to p. 48, one gets the applicable laws and regulations and the required elements of proof for finding a violation. Pages 52-64 summarize eighteen numbered events revealing conduct that supports the first finding of abuse of power.

That section begins with events relating to the Wootens' 2005 divorce proceedings, including an August 2005 email Sarah Palin sent Colonel Grimes and a transcript of the judge's Oct. 2005 ruling on child support, in which he expressed his frustration with the Palin family's efforts to get Wooten fired when he had child support obligations to meet. [Note that the divorce was final in 2006 -- April, I believe -- and Palin did not become Governor until December 2006].

Most of the rest of the conduct deals with Todd's repeated contacts with state officials in his attempt to get Wooten fired despite the fact that Monegan kept trying to tell him that it was inappropriate for them to be discussing the matter and that, since an investigation had already been conducted and discipline imposed on Wooten by the time the Palin became governor, Moegan could not take any actions against Wooten based on his prior conduct. Sarah was only actively involved at the outset, but Todd always spoke in terms indicating that he was acting on behalf of them both as well as the rest of the family.

After describing the key events, the report sets forth its conclusions in support of the findings. The conclusions concerning Governor Palin's abuse of power are detailed at pp. 65-67. They include the following:
The policy underlying Alaska's Ethics Act is to discourage executive branch employees from acting upon personal interests in the perfromance of their public responsibilties and to avoid conflicts of interest in the performance of duty. The Act makes clear that compliance with the code of ethics creates a burden on each executive branch employee that is personal in nature.

Compliance with the code of ethics is not optional. It is an individual responsibilty imposed by law, and any effort to benefit a personal interest through official action is a violation of that trust. As explained aboev, the term "benefit" is very broadly defined, and includes anything that is in the person's advantage or personal self-interest. The term "personal interest" as used in the Ethics Act means any interest held by the public officer or the public officer's immediate family, including a sibling such as Governor Palin's sister Molly, Molly's children, her father Mr. Heath, or any other family member. AS 39. 52.960(11).

As defined in AS 39.52.960(14), the term "official action" means advice, participation or assistance, including, for example, a recommendation, decision, approval, disapproval, vote or other similar action, includling inaction, by a public officer."

The evidence supports the conclusion that Governor Palin, at the least, engaged in "official action" by her inaction if not her active particpation or assistance to her husband in attempting to get Trooper Wooten fired [and there is evidence of her active participation.] She knowingly, as that term is defined in the above cited statutes, permitted Todd Palin to use the Governor's office and the resources of the Governor's office, including access to state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get Trooper Wooten fired.....

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. SHe had the authority and the power to require Mr. Palin to cease contacting subordinates, but she failed to act.

Such impermissible and repeated contacts create conflicts of intersts for subordinate employees who must choose to either please a superior or run the risk of facing that superior's displeasure and tje possible consequences of such displeasure. This was one of the very reasons the Ethics Act was promulgated by the Legislature....

Governor Palin has stated publicly that she and her family feared Trooper Wooten. Yet the evidence presented has been inconsistent with such claims of fear....

Finally, it is noteworthy that in almost every contact with subordinate employees, Mr. Palin's comments were couched in terms of his desire to see Trooper Wooten fired for reasons that had nothing to do with fear....

I conclude that such claims of fear were not bona fide and were offered to provide cover for the Palins' real motivation: to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family related reasons....
pp. 65-67.

This is the meat of the report. It goes on to conclude that although Monegan's refusal to fire Wooten was probably a factor in Palin's decision to fire Monegan, she had other reasons as well, and violated no law by getting rid of him.

Bottomline, there does not appear to be anything new in the facts presented. Nor is there anything startling about the conclusions. The report does not recommend censure (as far as I could see, at least) and contains no inflammatory language. All it does it make two recommendations for legislative action: (1) a change in the law to protect the confidentiality of employee medical records regarding workers' compensation claims, and (2) a change to see that persons such as the Palins who make complaints against troopers receive information about what the department does about those complaints.

So, it is a mystery to me why the Palins and the McCain campaign fought so hard to keep this report from being released. I don't see how the basic facts can be disputed. Todd Palin himself admitted to his repeated contacts with state officials and employees in the affadavit released earlier this week. The Palins may claim that Sarah did not know about every contact, but it would be hard for her to deny that she knew he was pursuing the matter or that she disagreed with his efforts. But I don't think they have ever seriously viewed the matter as being a dispute over such facts (at least not since the recorded phone conversation came out) -- only what kind of conclusions one should draw from them.

I do not see how any of this will impact the Presidential election. Palin fans will not care or will think it an understandable family matter, and everyone else is likely to be more concerned about other issues. Nevertheless, I think the non-news of this report indicates how Palin really does not get what these kinds of ethics violations are about.

There was an interesting footnote in the recent cover story on her in the New Republic (link somewhere below) about conflicts of interest that arose in Wasilla. One example was a vote on whether the city would substantially increase its contribution to the winner's purse for the big snowmobile race that Todd races in. When some suggested that she recuse herself from the vote, she was deeply offended and unable to grasp what the problem was. She reasoned that just because Todd had won the race the previous year was no guarantee he'd win again, so there was no conflict. No one could convince her that being in the position of being likely to receive some personal gain was enough of a reason to recuse herself.

Similarly, with the whole Wooten affair, she does not seem to get that there could be anything wrong with trying to get rid of someone she believes is unfit to serve in the police force -- all just because she is governor and he is her ex-brother-in-law. It may be that she is right about Wooten, and her motive for getting him fired may have been simply righteous indignation rather than some kind of payback for the way he treated her family. But what she doesn't seem to understand is that the criticism in Alaska and elsewhere has not been that she was wrong in her assessment of Wooten, but rather that she should not have tried to use her position as governor and contacts with her subordinates to get him fired.

More importantly, neither she nor Todd seem to have ever grasped that no one -- private citizen or governor -- is entitled to get someone fired for conduct for which he has already been, in effect, tried and convicted. Under the rule of law, Monegan could not simply re-do the investigation and reach a different result to please them or anyone else. But they don't seem to grasp basic notions of due process and protection against double jeopardy.

Nor are they ever likely to understand how "light" a sentence they received in the form of this investigative report and the publicity that will briefly attend it. It defies even the wacky logic of Presidential politics that all day today Palin supporters were making noise outside the Legislative Council's chambers, all dressed in clown costumes, in protest of a report they had not seen and which, in the end, will amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist, if that. But, then, nothing makes much sense in this election season. Woe to the Alaskans who must live with these politicians once the national news blows over.

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