Gov. Sarah Palin is using the Alaska State Troopers as a "whipping boy" to try and cover up her misdeeds, the head of the troopers' union said Wednesday.
The governor's lawyer has accused the troopers of turning a blind eye to an alleged rogue officer, Mike Wooten, who also is the governor's ex-brother-in-law.
"It is outrageous and disappointing that the governor would choose to make the Alaska State Troopers the whipping boy for her ethical lapse of judgment," said John Cyr, the executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association.
Cyr added that his organization was filing an ethics complaint against the governor and her staff regarding the disclosure of Wooten's private personnel information.
Palin, recently picked to be the Republican vice presidential candidate, is the target of a legislative investigation into whether she improperly pressured former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan to fire Wooten and then fired Monegan after he refused.
Wooten went through a bitter divorce and has had custody battles with Palin's sister. Palin has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and has said Wooten constituted a legitimate threat to her family.
On Tuesday, Palin's lawyer filed an ethics complaint regarding her dismissal of Monegan. The complaint was an attempt to have the state personnel board investigate the Monegan firing and head off the Legislature's own investigation.
In the complaint, Palin's attorney accused the Alaska State Troopers of conducting a "slipshod" investigation into Wooten. Troopers opened an investigation into Wooten after Palin's sister obtained a restraining order against him.
Palin and her family told Wooten's supervisors that he'd committed several illegal acts as a trooper, including threatening to kill Palin's father and using a Taser on his 10-year-old stepson.
"It was immediately apparent to Sarah Palin's family that the troopers' investigation into Wooten was negligently or deliberately slipshod. The trooper who interviewed Palin and her husband did not record all their statements. The Palins learned later that many witnesses to wrongful or possibly illegal behavior by Wooten were never interviewed," Palin's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, wrote. He added that "investigators seemed more concerned about exonerating Wooten than protecting public safety or the Palin family."
In 2005, prior to Palin being elected to serve as governor, Fairbanks Trooper Sgt. Ron Wall was assigned to investigate Wooten, who worked in the outlying Anchorage area. According to Wooten's file, Wall interviewed more than 15 people, some of them more than once, in an investigation that lasted about six months. Some interviews were recorded, others were not.
Wall was later promoted to lieutenant.
Cyr said there are about 20 to 30 internal investigations a year into alleged trooper misconduct, and Wall has conducted several investigations. Wall said he is prohibited by law from discussing any details of internal investigations, including how many he has been a part of.
"I take employee investigations very seriously," Wall said when reached by phone Wednesday, explaining why he would not comment for this story.
In his investigation, which recently was made public by Wooten and the troopers' union, Wall concluded that Wooten had illegally shot a moose, made threats about Palin's father, and used a Taser on his 10-year-old stepson in a "training capacity." Wall found several other accusations made by Palin and her family to be unsubstantiated, including that Wooten had used illegal steroids, driven drunk and tried to bully his way out of paying a $5 fee at the local dump.
Several months after his investigation was completed, Wall's superior re-interviewed two witnesses and found that Wooten had been drinking beer while operating a patrol car. In a letter to Wooten, Col. Julia Grimes told Wooten that his record showed "a serious and concentrated pattern of unacceptable and at times illegal activity, occurring over a lengthy period."
Wooten was suspended for 10 days. Grimes, who has since retired, told him the punishment was meant "to be a last chance to take corrective action."
That punishment was later reduced to five days after the union complained.
Cyr said there have been no other complaints made against Wooten except for those from Palin's friends and family.
In Palin's ethics complaint, her lawyer wrote that the governor was only made aware of Wooten's punishment after Monegan was fired. But The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Monegan has copies of a 2007 e-mail from Palin in which she said Wooten "was 'investigated' for over a year and merely given a slap on the wrist."
The Post also reported that Palin had said in an e-mail to Monegan that the investigation of Wooten had been a "joke."
In Tuesday's complaint, Palin's attorney said "(the governor) finds this slap on the wrist by the prior administration's Department of Public Safety a dereliction of duty to ensure that troopers are law-abiding and of good character."
Former Public Safety Commissioner Bill Tandeske, who was the state's top cop while Wooten was being investigated, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The Juneau Empire submitted questions to Palin, through her spokeswoman Sharon Leighow, asking the governor if she believes the troopers have shown a pattern of misconduct and if the public ought to be concerned about how they investigate their own officers. Palin, who gave an acceptance speech at the Republican Party National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Wednesday evening, did not immediately respond.
But in the 2007 e-mail reported in The Post, Palin wrote Monegan that "we have too many examples lately of cops and troopers who violate the public trust. DPS has come across as merely turning a blind eye or protecting that officer, seemingly 'for the good of the brotherhood.'"
Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said she could not, by law, comment on the Wooten matter. But she said her department "always does thorough and comprehensive investigations" into allegations of trooper misconduct. She said punishments depend "on what can be proved ... and what is appropriate under the state personnel laws."
"Public safety is our top concern," Peters added. "We take it to heart."
Bruce Ludwig, business manager of the Alaska Public Employees Association, which represents about 40 troopers in supervisory positions, said he didn't think Palin was qualified to "second guess" the troopers' investigation into Wooten's behavior.
"How many personnel investigations has she ever done?" Ludwig asked.
But he added that from what he'd read in news accounts, Wooten doesn't seem to be an ideal trooper. Ludwig said the larger issue at play was the low pay of troopers and how it had affected personnel matters in the department.
"When you can't hire replacements, you lower your standards," Ludwig said. "The real story here is how we have to take people like Wooten."
Ludwig said he had some involvement with troopers' internal investigations when he worked for the state in the 1970s and 1980s. He said he never saw any evidence of cover-ups by officers tasked with investigating the conduct of fellow officers.
"Those guys were real straight shooters," Ludwig said. "They called 'em the way they saw 'em."
Similarly, House Minority Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said that in her former job as a public defender she'd found the state troopers, for the most part, to be a "pretty amazing group of people."
"They met due process rights. They respected the Constitution," Kerttula said.
Kerttula added that Palin's recent attempts to block the Legislature's efforts to investigate are a mistake and the governor should let the investigation runs its course. She said the governor is not acting like the Sarah Palin she knows.
"That's a very unusual move," Kerttula said of Palin's ethics complaint. "I don't know what to say about that."
Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juneau Empire ©2013. All Rights Reserved.