Troopergate expands into workers comp

Monegan firing investigation looks into whether compensation system was abused

Posted: Sunday, October 05, 2008

Gov. Sarah Palin's controversial decision to fire her public safety commissioner may not present the same risks for her vice-presidential campaign as does a possible attempt to interfere in the state workers compensation system.

Palin in July replaced Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, who had not fired Trooper Mike Wooten, formerly married to Palin's sister prior to a bitter divorce.

Palin had originally pledged to cooperate with the Alaska Legislature's investigation into Monegan's removal. After Palin was selected to be the Republican Party's vice presidential candidate by Sen. John McCain, Palin reversed her pledge and began trying to block the investigation.

Now a state judge has reinvigorated that investigation with the rejection last week of a Republican-led attempt to derail it. Despite an appeal of the Superior Court decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, the ruling may increase the chances that Palin administration officials will participate. Several administration officials have been ignoring subpoenas at the behest of Palin.

The Legislature's special counsel, Stephen Branchflower, has been investigating whether or not members of the Governor's Office staff tried to intercede in the Wooten disability claim. He's expected to produce by Friday a report on what his investigation has found about the Monegan firing and the Wooten disability claim.

"I want to maximize the evidence, and let the reader decide," Branchflower said.

Workers comp investigation

Since Palin's initial public pledge to cooperate, two significant events have occurred that may have caused her to reverse that pledge, one better known than the other.

First, Palin was tapped by McCain as his running mate, which reinvigorated the Republican campaign. Second, and less publicized, was that Branchflower expanded the inquiry into the workers compensation issue.

Palin has argued that Wooten was a "renegade" trooper who was a risk to the state, but if she were to be found to have meddled improperly with his disability claim her motivation could appear to be more personal vindictiveness than the state's welfare.

Before Palin blocked members of her staff from complying with subpoenas from the Legislature, Branchflower interviewed state officials who handle such claims, as well as the state's outside claims adjustment agency. All were in agreement that there was no inappropriate Palin involvement in how the claim was handled.

Since then, however, a tipster alerted Branchflower to claims that the "governor's office" had pressured Harbor Adjustment Service, the third-party claims adjuster, to deny the claim.

Branchflower said Murlene Wilkes, owner of Harbor, denied any involvement by the governor's office in Wooten's claim in an unsworn statement. State employees who dealt with the issue told similar stories, he said.

"At that point everything looked OK and aboveboard," Branchflower said, and he came to the conclusion that there was nothing more to look into.

Later, however, a Harbor employee called Branchflower's tip line and reported that Wilkes had said "either the governor or the governor's office wanted this claim denied," according to information provided by Branchflower to the Senate Judiciary Committee in September.

The Harbor employee said she would not be part of denying any claim because of pressure.

"I don't care if it's the president who wants it denied, I'm not going to deny it unless I have the medical evidence to do that," Branchflower said the witness told him.

Wooten had slipped on ice at the scene of a fatal car crash and hurt his back.

Wooten's workers compensation claim was eventually denied said John Cyr, business manager for the Public Safety Employees Association, the troopers union.

With Wooten still unable to work, but not getting disability pay, that led to severe financial strain, Cyr said.

The testimony from the Harbor employee led Branchflower to questions whether he had the accurate story of what happened with the claim review.

"Having taken her statement, I had reason to believe that when I spoke to Ms. Wilkes earlier that she was not truthful," Branchflower said.

Branchflower said he intended to re-interview Wilkes, this time under oath.

"She obviously is a key player," he said.

He also told the legislators that Harbor may have had a financial incentive to comply with a request from the governor's office because of the importance of its state contract. State records show it paid Harbor $1.32 million last fiscal year to handle workers compensation claims.

Branchflower said the Harbor employee said the state contract, recently renewed, was very important to Wilkes.

"If she loses the contract ... it will be tough on her," Branchflower relayed to the Judiciary Committee.

State records show Wilkes is facing a tax lien of $560,000 filed in July, and another for $82,000, filed in September. Wilkes' attorney said there was no connection between the liens and the investigation, and that a payment plan was being developed.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said on Sept. 19 that Wilkes was expected to agree to a deposition. There has been no official word since then whether that happened or what was said.

Board query may limit investigation

Most of the focus of the Troopergate investigation has been on more high profile subjects of the investigation, including Frank Bailey, who was suspended after a questionable call to Monegan about Wooten, and Todd Palin, the governor's husband.

Branchflower's look at the workers compensation issue has him attempting to interview several people deeper within the state's administrative bureaucracy, including Annette Kreitzer, commissioner of the Department of Administration; Nicki Neal, director of the Division of Personnel; Dianne Kiesel, former director of the Division of Personnel; and Brad Thompson, director of the Division of Risk Management. All have been subpoenaed.

Palin's initial inquiry into her office's involvement in the Monegan-Wooten issue was handled by staff of the Department of Law, including attorneys Mike Barnhill and Susan Cox.

She has since shifted that responsibility to the state Personnel Board. Though that board is part of the executive branch of government that Palin heads, two of its three members were appointed by a former governor and only two of the three can be members of the same political affiliation. The board now has two Republican and one Democratic members.

To bring the issue into the Personnel Board arena, Palin filed an ethics complaint against herself and said her staff should cooperate only with that investigation and not the Legislature's.

The Personnel Board is administered by the Division of Personnel and Labor Relations, headed by Neal, one of the witnesses facing a legislative subpoena.

Palin also has asked that the complaint she brought be dropped as meritless.

When Palin brought the ethics complaint against herself she only included issues related to the Monegan firing, not the Wooten workers compensation issue.

While it is not clear whether Branchflower will obtain enough cooperation to determine conclusively what happened in either the Monegan firing or the Wooten benefits issue, he did complete some interviews before Palin reversed course on cooperating.

Through those Branchflower learned of a meeting convened by Palin's chief of staff and attended by top Department of Administration managers.

At that meeting "they dealt with Trooper Wooten - what to do with him, placement, job classification, some other things. All of those things are relevant to my work," Branchflower said.

Wooten's attorney, Chancy Croft of Anchorage, told the Anchorage Daily News that he was unaware of any effort by Palin to interfere with the claim.

Palin's communications director, Bill McAllister, referred a reporter to Croft's public statement and declined further comment.

Branchflower said he would provide a factual account of what happened. It is unlikely that any state employee would have committed a violation of privacy laws simply by looking at Wooten's personnel file, he said.

That's because state statutes allow government employees to view those files and doesn't specify that they must have a legitimate need to do so.

"As far as I am concerned it's a non-issue, because of the statute," he said.

The confidentiality laws regarding workers compensation files are "inartfully drafted," Branchflower said.

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