Ethical dilemma

Palin, former ethics champion, leaving amid a storm of complaints

Posted: Sunday, July 26, 2009

Gov. Sarah Palin leaves office today, claiming continual "frivolous" ethics complaints have driven her from the governorship.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

In her July 3 resignation announcement, Palin claimed a cost of "millions" to the state from the complaints, and since then she and her staff have added more detail and emotion to what they say was a campaign to hamper her ability to govern.

"She's feeling shackled, she can't really do her job in the fullest because of the record requests, ethics complaints, the lawsuits," said Mike Nizich, Palin's chief of staff, at a press conference following her resignation.

Nizich said that was a tactic of Palin's opponents, to "throw the governor on her heels" and keep her from being able to govern.

Those claims are contradicted by records released under the Alaska Public Records Law and interviews with administration and other sources. They show a pattern of the Palin administration using public resources and the state's ethics laws in an effort to block and discredit both frivolous and credible charges made against the governor.

Most of the cost so far stems from that obstructionist effort and not the complaints themselves, the Empire's inquiry shows.

That's a disappointment for some of Palin's early allies on ethics issues, including former House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz of Anchorage.

"The administration has been bullying people who lodge complaints," he said. "That's a completely unacceptable use of the government's power."

Palin has been issuing press releases highlighting the complaints filed against her, calling one "asinine" and raising their profile. The governor had to go public to defend herself, said Sharon Leighow, the governor's spokeswoman.

"This is what some of these filers do, they put out press releases, they go on talk radio before anyone had a chance to analyze what's in their complaint," she said.

"Palin's private attorney joined in, issuing a statement to Anchorage's KTVA-TV highlighting an elderly complainant's past legal and criminal court cases. The elderly man's complaint was not properly notarized and was dismissed.

Former ethics allies lose faith

Berkowitz, a liberal Democrat, joined with conservative Republican Wev Shea to develop a white paper on ethics reform for Palin, which she made public through a press conference in Juneau early in her term.

But both say they're disappointed at the turn her administration has taken, given her campaign pledge of a new era of "open and transparent" government.

"I know that Ethan and I wanted nothing but the best for the governor," said Shea, a former U.S. attorney for Alaska.

So far, "Troopergate" has been the most prominent and expensive ethics investigation of Palin's tenure. It began as a bipartisan effort to determine the validity of allegations made by former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan that he was fired for not helping Palin retaliate against a former brother-in-law.

The Legislature's Republican-majority Legislative Council, chaired by then-Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, spent $80,000 investigating Troopergate last year, according to the final accounting provided by the Legislative Affairs Agency this month.

The council's independent investigator, former state prosecutor Stephen Branchflower, concluded that Palin had abused her power when she and her family used the authority of the governor's office to wage a campaign against an Alaska trooper who was once married to Palin's sister.

Palin initially pledged her administration's cooperation with the investigation, but abandoned that pledge after she was picked as the Republican vice presidential candidate. After that, she actively opposed the inquiry, calling the bipartisan investigation a "partisan" attack.

That's when costs began to soar.

"She has used the ethics process to protect herself from obvious wrongdoing," Shea said.

Closed and opaque

Palin used the Alaska attorney general to attempt to block the investigation, resisting subpoenas and refusing to produce the documents and witnesses Branchflower sought.

State records show the Attorney General's Office spent $8,200 on court challenges to the subpoenas, another $4,100 on an unsuccessful appeal, and a total of $116,000 responding to Troopergate.

While fighting the legislative investigation in the months before the presidential election, Palin filed a complaint against herself with the state Personnel Board, an executive branch agency independent of the Legislature.

The Personnel Board hired its own independent counsel, Anchorage attorney Tim Petumenos. His report was made public the evening before the Nov. 4 election.

Palin made it clear that her goal in seeking the Personnel Board investigation was to blunt the impact of Branchflower's legislative investigation, telling Anchorage's KTUU-TV the Legislative investigation was a "partisan circus."

Branchflower's investigation concluded Palin had abused her power as governor.

Petumenos' 58-page report, released the day before the November election, referenced Branchflower's report 55 times while reaching a contrary conclusion.

Petumenos' report cost the Personnel Board at least $187,000, the bulk of the $296,000 it said it spent on ethics investigations so far.

That figure isn't final. Linda Perez, director of Administrative Services for the Governor's Office, reported in late June that the Personnel Board's cost has been higher than that, and is actually $560,000 because of contracts authorized but not yet billed. She provided no breakdown by case.

So far, the Troopergate costs dwarfed all other investigations, according to information provided by the governor's office.

The fight over "frivolous"

Palin and her staff also have been misstating the outcome of at least two known investigations. In her resignation statement, she claimed that all the complaints against her - 15 by her count on July 3 - had been dismissed."We've won!" she said.

To claim an unbroken string of victories, Palin had to exclude the legislative investigation that found she had abused her power, a Personnel Board case in which she reimbursed the state for questionable travel expenses, and another Personnel Board case in which a staff member was referred for ethics training.

That her characterization of them as frivolous has been accepted by many in the media is frustrating to some observers.

"Some of them were frivolous, but dog-gone-it, not all of them were," said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, appointed to represent Juneau in the Alaska Senate by Palin on the final day of the 2009 regular legislative session.

Former prosecutor Shea said the merits of the complaints are shown by the effort Palin went to fight them.

"If these ethics complaints are so frivolous, why are they so worried about them?" he said.

One of the first complaints against Palin was brought by Andree McLeod, a persistent Palin critic even before Palin ran for national office.

McLeod accused members of the Palin administration of trying to get a Fairbanks gubernatorial campaign volunteer a state job for which he was not qualified.

Independent counsel Petumenos, the same one who later conducted the second Troopergate investigation, determined that a member of Palin's staff, Frank Bailey, had interceded in the hiring decision, which was not part of his official duties as director of Boards and Commissions.

Petumenos recommended that Bailey get "training and counseling" on the Alaska Personnel Act to "prevent the potential for future violations of the act."

He found no evidence Palin herself had been involved in the matter, ending the need for an independent counsel. He then recommended that the case be reviewed by the Department of Law for potential violations of the act.

Troopergate redux

In the Troopergate case, Petumenos reported that Palin's staff may have been involved in a campaign against Palin's former brother-in-law, State Trooper Mike Wooten, who Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, had at various times tried to have fired.

Petumenos concluded that when Todd Palin took actions such as calling Monegan into the governor's office and pressuring him to fire Wooten, he was a not a state employee and was not covered by the laws relating to state employees.

"Mr. Palin was a private citizen not within the jurisdiction of the Ethics Act," Petumenos concluded.

Other members of the Palin administration also got involved in the Wooten issue.

When Wooten was attempting to return to work following a disability claim, Palin's chief of staff called a meeting about where he should be placed. The deputy commissioner of the Department of Administration, the state's top personnel officer, Risk Management Division director and human resources manager attended.

"There is conflicting evidence about what was discussed," Petumenos said.

"Notes of the meeting could support an inference that the placement discussions may have meandered into a discussion supporting a motivation to constructively discharge Trooper Wooten by assigning him duties that would cause him to resign."

"Sworn witness testimony from those attending the meeting is somewhat inconsistent with some entries on notes taken at the time."

Petumenos said it was "crystal clear" however, that when Wooten returned to light duty there was no attempt to cause him to resign.

That was just one of a series of high-level meetings about Wooten, but Petumenos concluded there was no violation on Palin's part because she did not order it.

Those two investigations have been made public by the Personnel Board, and Branchflower's report has been made public by the Legislature. Of the other complaints Palin has alluded to, the Personnel Board won't disclose their outcome or the substance of them. Palin's "wins" in the other cases cannot be independently confirmed.

As Palin announced she was leaving office on July 3, she continued to maintain her administration had a strong record on ethics.

"We cleaned up previously unethical actions; we ushered in bipartisan ethics reform," Palin said.

Incoming Gov. Sean Parnell said the ethics reform the state needs now is a way to keep ethics investigations more confidential.

He said inappropriate "leaks" of ethics probes are harming the state.

"These leaks must stop," Parnell said. "If we allow public officials to be tried and convicted in the press through abuse of the legal process, then the Executive Branch is at risk. The rule of law is threatened."

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