My turn: Not all of the Troopergate questions were answered

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2008

Many questions still surround "Troopergate." For instance, does the Branchflower report vindicate Gov. Sarah Palin, as she claims? Why do we care? What I mean is, why do we care what Stephen E. Branchflower thinks? He's only one guy - picked by former co-worker, Sen. Hollis French, and paid a lot of money to report on the governor.

Should we accept Branchflower's conclusions because the Supreme Court allowed his investigation to proceed? Of course not. The court's ruling only means it recognized the legislature is a separate branch of government. It was silly for conservative legislators to file a lawsuit to try to stop the investigation on the grounds it was "political." Such investigations are always political, and there's no legal reason the court should have stopped this one.

Some people think the courts approved the Branchflower report by allowing its release to the public. Wrong again. Keep in mind, legislative investigations are not like grand jury investigations, and if this had been a grand jury report it would have been scrutinized by the judiciary. After a 1985 grand jury blasted then-governor Bill Sheffield, the Supreme Court adopted strict rules for grand jury reports reflecting adversely on people - including public officials. The presiding judge must carefully review the report and the evidence. Then there's a hearing and appeal so that persons named by the grand jury can present contrary evidence and argument in court. And all this happens before the report can be released. You can look it up on the court's Web site. It's Rule 6.1, Alaska Rules of Criminal Procedure. Branchflower knows all about grand juries. He was a tough career prosecutor, and I bet he was glad he didn't have to follow these rules here. No judge looked at his report.

Don't get me wrong. I know and like Steve Branchflower. But he's just one lawyer, and his conclusions aren't any more valid than mine. Or Hollis French's, for that matter. I know Senator French, too. Nice guy, decent lawyer. But although this investigation was started before anyone could have imagined Sarah Palin appearing on Saturday Night Live, now the stakes are much higher.

So, in this high-stakes game, Branchflower says Palin wasn't afraid of Trooper Mike Wooten because the cost-cutting governor cut back on her security staff. (Wooten threatened the governor's father.) Branchflower says he knows Sarah and Todd Palin's "real motivation" in talking to Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan was to get Wooten fired. But the Palins knew he couldn't be fired, because everyone told them so. The Wooten case was closed, and they were frustrated, and they weren't shy about letting everyone know. Okay, maybe she was being overly protective of her sister and her father, and she should have muzzled her husband and her over-zealous staff because there was little point to all their venting. But abuse of power?

Did Monegan feel pressure? So he says now. But cabinet-level officials usually have enough backbone to say no if asked to do things that they just can't do under a labor contract. Maybe Monegan didn't have what it takes to be the head of a major state department after all. Branchflower discloses lots of evidence showing that Monegan wasn't a team player in the cabinet and did things that justified the governor's claim of insubordination. Maybe Sarah Palin was not only legally justified in firing him, but she was right in firing him. Was she? After 263 pages, the Branchflower report expresses no opinion on that point.

As for Wooten, the union contract and past rulings of arbitrators limited the discipline the troopers could impose. So be it. I'm willing to let it drop, but then again, it wasn't my father who was threatened, and it wasn't my nephew who was zapped with a Taser. What do you say, Senator French? Don't we need legislation to remove some of the obstacles preventing police agencies from getting rid of bad cops?

• Dean Guaneli is a Juneau attorney who retired in 2006, after 30 years with the Alaska Attorney General's Office.

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