Gov. Sarah Palin, a rising young GOP star mentioned as a possible running mate for John McCain, could see her clean-hands reputation damaged by a growing furor over whether she tried to get her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper.
A legislative panel has launched a $100,000 investigation to determine if Palin dismissed Alaska's public safety commissioner because he would not fire the trooper, Mike Wooten. Wooten went through a messy divorce from Palin's sister.
Palin has denied the commissioner's dismissal had anything to do with her former brother-in-law. And she denied orchestrating the dozens of telephone calls made by her husband and members of her administration to Wooten's bosses.
Palin said she welcomes the investigation: "Hold me accountable."
Still, the allegations she abused her office could prove embarrassing for Palin, who got elected in 2006 on an ethics reform platform.
"It could be a bit of a knock on the clean-government issue in Alaska she backed," said Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.
Referring to Republican Sen. Ted Stevens' recent indictment on corruption charges and the bribery-and-conspiracy scandal that has ensnared five former or current state lawmakers, GOP analyst John Feehery said: "Right now, in Alaska all you have to do is say the word 'investigation' and people are going to be running away."
Nevertheless, Palin is still riding high in Alaska, where she jump-started a project to build a natural gas pipeline and pushed through a plan to send every resident $1,200 from the state's oil-rich treasury to offset high fuel prices.
And based on what has come out so far, some GOP insiders and political scientists said they are not worried about the effect on her prospects for higher office. (Some analysts said that because of her relative inexperience, Palin never had any realistic chance of being picked for vice president.)
"I would be very surprised if Sarah Palin didn't become a larger figure within national politics and I would be very surprised if she wasn't a part of a McCain administration," said Todd Harris, a Republican aide on McCain's 2000 White House bid.
Up to now, GOP insiders and political analysts have marveled at Palin's ascent on the national scene, calling her fearless style, her reform efforts, her energy and her glamour refreshing.
The 44-year-old Palin has not been afraid to take on the Republican Old Guard in Alaska and has tangled with the oil companies over taxes and gas leases. Last year, the former beauty queen posed for a photo shoot in Vogue, and this spring she gave birth to her fifth child, who was found to have Down syndrome.
Palin's problems started a month ago when she fired Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, saying she wanted the department to go in a new direction.
Monegan has said he does not know why he was fired. But he said pressure to get rid of Wooten had come from those around Palin, including her husband, Todd; her former chief of staff; and other top officials.
In 2005, before Palin ran for office, the Palin family accused Wooten of drinking a beer while in his patrol car, illegal hunting and firing a Taser at his 11-year-old stepson. The Palins also claimed Wooten threatened to kill Sarah Palin's father.
Wooten was suspended over the allegations for five days in 2006 but is still on the job. Monegan refused to comment on Wooten's situation, saying he could not discuss personnel matters.
More recently, Todd Palin said, he took his concerns over the governor's safety directly to Monegan. But he said he never told anyone to fire Wooten.
Wooten has refused to comment.
Attorney General Talis Colberg's conducted an investigation and found that 14 members of the Palin administration - including Colberg himself - made calls to Department of Public Safety officials about Wooten.
In one of those calls, Frank Bailey, director boards and commissions, was tape-recorded as saying: "Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, why on earth hasn't, why is this guy still representing the department?"
On Wednesday, Palin said none of the two dozen or so calls were made at her direction.
Bailey, similarly, said he acted on his own. He said the only time he heard the governor discuss Wooten was during a security briefing shortly after she was elected.
"From that point on I've had a concern this person could fly off the handle and do something terrible to the governor, to her family or to the public," Bailey said.
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