Lawmakers plan to order testimony from Palin staff

Legislators say they will not issue governor a subpoena in probe

Posted: Sunday, September 07, 2008

State lawmakers said they plan to order Gov. Sarah Palin's staff to be interviewed by the Legislature's special investigator, upping the stakes in their investigation of Gov. Palin's firing of the state's former top cop.

A joint committee will issue subpoenas to members of Palin's staff Friday in Anchorage, lawmakers said. The maximum penalty for refusing a committee's subpoena is six months in jail.

But legislators also showed special consideration to Palin, who was recently tapped to be Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, and said they will not issue her a subpoena.

"She has told the public that she intends to cooperate with the investigation, indeed, she has told the public that she welcomes the investigation, and I have every faith that she means it," Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, R-Anchorage, said in a statement.

At issue is whether Palin illegally fired former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. Palin has said Monegan got the boot because of policy and budget reasons.

"In terms of a commissioner, he was a failure," Palin's lawyer, Thomas Van Flein said. "He did not know or understand the governor's priorities on spending less and working harder."

Monegan said he was dumped after he refused to fire the state Trooper Mike Wooten, who is divorced from Palin's sister.

Van Flein said Palin has done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide. He also said the Legislature is acting unconstitutionally and has instigated a "secret investigation."

When asked if Palin would meet with the Legislature's investigator, Stephen Branchflower, Van Flein said:

"Mr. Branchflower needs to call me to work that out."

Lawmakers also said they have bumped up the deadline for the investigation's completion to Oct. 10. The original deadline of Oct. 31 is just days before the Nov. 4 presidential election.

"Suddenly, (Oct. 31) takes on an enormous new significance," said Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, who is supervising Branchflower's investigation. "We all agreed we had to get the report away from that date."

Lawmakers approved spending up to $100,000 in July for the investigation in Monegan's firing.

At that time, a spokeswoman for Palin said the governor and her staff would fully cooperate with an investigation. But Van Flein has since argued that the state's Personnel Board is a more appropriate venue for an investigation.

French countered that the Legislature has the "inherent" power to "oversee the actions of the executive branch."

Seven key members of Palin's staff said last week they would not agree to be deposed by Branchflower, according to state lawmakers.

French said he didn't know what would happened if the governor's staff refused to testify to Branchflower after being issued subpoenas.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get there," French said. "That's something that'll be handled on an individual basis."

Van Flein has already deposed one of those key witnesses, Palin aide Frank Bailey. Palin recently suspended Bailey, with pay, after she released a recording of a phone call he made to a trooper lieutenant. The governor said it could be perceived from the phone call that Bailey was applying pressure to have Wooten fired on her behalf. Bailey said in his deposition that he was acting on his own.

But French said that deposition won't cut it.

"We hired Mr. Branchflower to ask the questions that in his judgment need to be asked," French said. "So it makes sense for Mr. Bailey to sit down with Mr. Branchflower."

French pointed out that the decision to approve an investigation was done by the bipartisan Legislative Council by a unanimous vote of eight Republicans and four Democrats.

One of those members, Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, called on French to step down from supervising the investigation. Coghill said he was concerned French had "tainted the issue" with "conclusionary" comments he'd made in the media.

Coghill said he also had questions about Branchflower's possible ties to Monegan, who worked for the Anchorage Police Department when Branchflower was a prosecutor in Anchorage.

But Coghill said he still thought a legislative investigation was worthwhile.

"Let's check into it," Coghill said. "If she blatantly misused her power we should know."

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or e-mail

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