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Troopergate issue resurfaces in House hearing

Colberg asked to talk about clash that began after Monegan firing

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2009

Animosity, along with a not-entirely-dormant court case, linger from the fall Troopergate battle between the Alaska Legislature and Gov. Sarah Palin.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Attorney General Talis Colberg's actions frustrated a number of legislators, including House Judiciary Chairman Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, who felt that Colberg urged his clients to defy subpoenas.

On Wednesday, Ramras called Colberg before his committee to talk about the clash that began over the firing of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, but grew heated after Palin was nominated as Sen. John McCain's vice presidential running mate in the Republican Party.

"I thought you did systemic damage to the rights of the Legislature," Ramras said.

Palin reversed earlier pledges to cooperate with the investigation after she joined the national campaign. Palin's "truth squad," headed by her former Communications Director Meg Stapleton, launched attacks on the Legislature and individual legislators, which rankled Ramras.

Colberg said he wasn't to blame for that.

"Neither me nor my office had anything to do with the truth squad," he said.

Legislators were trying figure out what Colberg's role was in the matter, and who the state's top law enforcement officer was representing.

Colberg said the seven state employees represented by his office were "never ordered or directed not to obey" subpoenas issued by the Legislature. He said the Department of Law simply told them their legal options, and all seven made their own decisions to resist the subpoenas.

The Department of Law at the time said that Palin did not want members of her administration to comply with legislative subpoenas, but Colberg said all the decisions about complying were ultimately made by the clients, not by his office.

The Department of Law went to court to quash the subpoenas, but its suit was dismissed by a Superior Court judge in Anchorage. In December, the department appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, and Colberg said a ruling is not expected until June.

Complicating the politics of the clash, the Republican Party and the Legislature itself was divided on the issue. Top Republican leaders backed the investigation into Palin, their party's national candidate.

At the same time, several pro-Palin legislators, including Judiciary Committee member Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, went to court themselves to try to stop the subpoenas. Lynn was present Wednesday, but did not speak.

Ramras led Colberg through a discussion of the Department of Law's legal challenge to the subpoenas, making it clear he found Colberg's legal reasoning far-fetched.

Colberg said former legislator Jay Kerttula, father of Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, himself challenged a subpoena in court. In that 1984 case the subpoena was ultimately dismissed.

"What we did was not unprecedented, and it was not a challenge to the Legislature's ability to investigate or issue a subpoena," Colberg said.

Among Colberg's reasons the subpoenas were invalid were that they were issued by the wrong committee, and would have been valid if they'd been issued by a different committee.

Ramras appeared skeptical of that as well.

Speaking ever more softly as the afternoon wore on, Colberg continued to maintain that while the Legislature had a right to issue subpoenas, the ones for his clients did not follow the precise formula necessary.

"We believe we have a legal argument," Colberg said.

Committee members Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, said maybe state law should be tweaked to clarify the subpoena process, but Ramras said it was clear the Palin administration would have resisted no matter how clearly the statute was written.

Ramras said the incident may show the need for Alaska to have an independent, elected attorney general. That's especially true after former Attorney General Greg Renkes left under an ethical cloud during the last administration.

"I watched Renkes and all that stuff; it's an ongoing thing with the attorney general," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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