Aides to Alaska Gov. Sara Palin say they welcome a prosecutor’s probe into whether her administration improperly sought the firing of a state trooper who had divorced the governor’s sister — an investigation that could distract from Mrs. Palin’s bid to become vice president.
Details of the case were well known before Sen. John McCain named Mrs. Palin today as his running mate in the presidential race. That suggests the campaign is not worried about the outcome of a probe whose final report is due Oct. 31 — just days before the Nov. 4 general election.
Steve Branchflower, appointed this month by the Alaska State Legislature as an independent special counsel in the inquiry, has been asked to determine if Mrs. Palin abused her power by ordering the firing on July 11 of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, who has said he felt pressured to fire the state trooper.
Mrs. Palin has denied any connection to the divorce. She said at the time that Mr. Monegan was being dismissed for not adequately filling state trooper vacancies and because, in her judgment, he “did not turn out to be a team player on budgeting issues.” She offered him the job of executive director of the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which he turned down.
Mrs. Palin has also denied applying pressure on anyone in the matter and has told the state legislature she has “nothing to hide.”
The McCain campaign was quick to defend Mrs. Palin and try to blame questions on Mr. McCain’s rival, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
“Its outrageous that the Obama campaign is trying to attack her over a family issue. As a reformer and a leader on ethics reform, she has been happy to help out in the investigation of this matter because she was never directly involved,” said a statement issued by the campaign.
“Her sisters former husband was a state trooper and several years ago was suspended from duty after making threats and using a taser on his stepson. One of [Mrs. Palin’s] staff members did talk about this episode with the office of public safety, but the governor was not aware of his actions. He was wrong to do so and was later suspended for it,” the statement said.
Alaska lawmakers approved $100,000 for the investigation, although they acknowledged that Mr. Monegan and other commissioners “serve at will, meaning they can be fired by Palin at any time.” The probe is being overseen by State Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat, who says the Palin administration is cooperating and subpoenas have been unnecessary.
“The real objective is to have an independent, unbiased, objective look at what happened,” said Mr. French.
Mr. Monegan told reporters his firing may have been due to what he described as his reluctance to fire Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten, who was divorced from Mrs. Palin’s sister, Molly McCann, and was involved in a custody fight over their children.
In 2006, before Mrs. Palin’s election as governor, Trooper Wooten was suspended for 10 days for threatening to kill Mrs. McCann’s and Mrs. Palin’s father, tasering his 11-year-old stepson at the boy’s request and violating game laws. After a union protest, the suspension was reduced to five days.
Mrs. Palin has acknowledged that a member of her administration, Frank Bailey, did contact the Department of Public Safety regarding Trooper Wooten, but both the governor and Mr. Bailey have denied that they applied any pressure on Mr. Monegan to terminate the trooper. Mr. Bailey was put on leave for two months for acting outside the scope of his authority as the director of boards and commissions.
The Palin administration released an audiotape of Mr. Bailey making inquiries about the status of the Wooten investigation, saying the governor had no knowledge of his efforts at the time.
Mr. Branchflower was an assistant district attorney in Anchorage for 20 years and served as the first director of the state Office of Victims Rights.
Mrs. Palin said she welcomed the investigation, adding that she knew Mr. Branchflower by reputation.
“I know he’s a prosecutor, probably a heavy duty prosecutor, and so that kind of puzzles us why we are going down that road when we are very, very open to answering any questions anybody has of me or administrators,” she said.
“But I think this process will bode well for the state of Alaska and our administration, having a review committee of those experts in public safety, in the trooper organization and of the needs throughout Alaska, especially in rural Alaska.”