Alaska editorial: Troopergate reports still worth analysis

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2008

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

The Alaska Personnel Board's review of Gov. Sarah Palin's firing of her public safety commissioner tells a much different tale than that of the earlier legislative investigation. Alaskans should give it fair consideration, even if its legalistic nature, by necessity, dismisses a legitimate issue.

The national election is over and Palin is back with us, so we still have an interest in understanding how she handled her concerns about Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten - her ex-brother-in-law whose publicly confirmed transgressions should have had him fired long before the governor's 2006 election.

The Alaska Personnel Board's independent counsel, Timothy Petumenos, begins by noting that the legislative investigator, Steve Branchflower, was not bound by the formal rules that apply to the personnel board. Those rules require that, before the board can consider disciplinary action, the independent counsel must find "probable cause" that a violation of law has occurred.

Petumenos declined to issue such a finding. He saw no hard evidence the governor ever asked Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan to take any disciplinary action toward Wooten.

Palin and Monegan disagree about whether two conversations concerning Wooten ever occurred. Monegan said they did; the governor said they didn't. Someone isn't telling the truth, but the investigator could not determine which person.

However, even if the conversations did occur, Petumenos said Monegan's accounts indicate the governor's alleged statements would not have violated the ethics act. "It is not a violation of the ethics act to inquire into the status of a matter or to express one's opinion about the merits of the decision made," Petumenos said.

In the first alleged conversation, Monegan said he declined to tell the governor about Wooten's disciplinary proceeding because he didn't think he was authorized.

"This is incorrect," Petumenos said. "Ms. Palin was entitled to know the results of the personnel action and to see the entire personnel file, if she wished, for any purpose other than to interfere with, or attempt to undo, the employment grievance proceedings."

There is no evidence the governor was trying to do that, Petumenos said. She did mention Wooten in several e-mails to Monegan, but she merely described how the issue colored her view of other public policy questions, Petumenos said.

"The ethics act prohibits official action to affect a matter related to one's personal, private interest; it does not go so far as to prohibit mentioning one's personal frustrations and experiences in the course of discussions about matters having nothing to do with such interests," Petumenos said.

Curiously, even if the governor had done all of which she has been accused, it's not clear that she would have violated the ethics act. The act states that "there is no substantial impropriety if ... a public officer's personal or financial interest in the matter is ... of a type that is possessed generally by the public or a large class of persons to which the public officer belongs." The governor obviously is one of many Alaskans who want to be sure their police are upstanding, law-abiding residents.

All this understood, the affair still leaves a lesson to be learned. Both reports illustrate the inappropriate way in which the Wooten issue was left unofficially to the governor's husband. Monegan may have contributed to that problem by telling the governor, in their second alleged conversation, that Todd Palin should be the conduit of concerns.

Of course, Mr. Palin had every right as a resident to petition his government, as Petumenos asserted. But, let's be realistic - the governor's husband is not an average resident. When he knocks, a commissioner is going to answer the door, repeatedly. Todd Palin shouldn't have been the one knocking; he put state employees in a very awkward spot.

If the governor felt the Wooten issue needed a review, she could have ordered a careful, legal process to do so. As Petumenos noted, she had the right to make sure every effort had been made to rectify a situation that clearly had not been handled well by the Department of Public Safety prior to her administration's arrival, even if she had a personal as well as a public interest in the matter.

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