Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008
What the Troopergate Report Really Says
By Nathan Thornburgh/Anchorage
Friday's report from special investigator Stephen Branchflower to Alaska's Legislative Council answered some basic questions about the political and personal bog known as Troopergate.
Did Governor Sarah Palin abuse the power of her office in trying to get her former brother-in-law, State Trooper Mike Wooten, fired? Yes.
Was the refusal to fire Mike Wooten the reason Palin fired Commissioner of Public Safety Walt Monegan? Not exclusively, and it was within her rights as the states' chief executive to fire him for just about any reason, even without cause.
Those answers were expected, given that most of the best pieces of evidence have been part of the public record for months. The result is not a mortal wound to Palin, nor does it put her at much risk of being forced to leave the ticket her presence succeeded in energizing.
But the Branchflower report still makes for good reading, if only because it convincingly answers a question nobody had even thought to ask: Is the Palin administration shockingly amateurish? Yes, it is. Disturbingly so.
The 263 pages of the report show a co-ordinated application of pressure on Monegan so transparent and ham-handed that it was almost certain to end in public embarrassment for the governor. The only surprise is that Troopergate is national news, not just a sorry piece of political gristle to be chewed on by Alaska politicos over steaks at Anchorage's Club Paris.
A harsh verdict? Consider the report's findings. Not only did people at almost every level of the Palin administration engage in repeated inappropriate contact with Walt Monegan and other high-ranking officials at the Department of Public Safety, but Monegan and his peers constantly warned these Palin disciples that the contact was inappropriate and probably unlawful. Still, the emails and calls continued " in at least one instance on recorded state trooper phone lines.
The state's head of personnel, Annette Kreitzer, called Monegan and had to be warned that personnel issues were confidential. The state's attorney general, Talis Colberg, called Monegan and had to be reminded that the call was putting both men in legal jeopardy, should Wooten decide to sue. The governor's chief of staff met with Monegan and had to be reminded by Monegan that, "This conversation is discoverable ... You don't want Wooten to own your house, do you?"
Monegan consistently emerges as the adult in these conversations, while the Palin camp displays a childish impetuousness and sense of entitlement.
One telling exchange: Deputy Commissioner John Glass, who worked under Monegan, told Branchflower he was "livid" after a Palin staffer, Frank Bailey, went outside the chain of command and called a state trooper in far-off Ketchikan to complain about Wooten. Why had Bailey called the trooper? Because, Bailey said, this trooper had gone to church with Sarah Palin back in Wasilla, so he felt "comfortable" talking to him about Wooten. Glass, too, tried to sound the warning that continuing to pressure anyone and everyone in the matter would end in "an unbelievable amount of embarrassment for the Governor and everybody else".
(See photos of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail)
Another amateurish sign: Todd Palin's outsize role in the mess. Branchflower said it was out of his jurisdiction to pass judgment on the First Gentleman, but his report paints an extralegal role for Todd Palin that would have made the Hillary Clinton of 1992 blush. In the report, the head of Gov. Palin's security detail says that Todd spent about half of his time in the governor's office " not at a desk (he didn't have one), but at a long conference table on one side of the office, with his own phone to make and receive calls. It became a shadow office, the informal Department of Getting Mike Wooten Fired.
It was at that long table that Todd Palin first scheduled a meeting with Walt Monegan, days after his wife's administration began. He showed Monegan three huge binders of evidence against Wooten, including a picture of a dead moose that had been shot illegally. After Monegan came back saying that there was no new actionable information, Todd began a very visible campaign of stewing and fuming, trying to get access to personnel files, calling up and down the Public Safety org chart.
The report also raises the suggestion that the final incident that led to Monegan's firing was perhaps the most (unintentionally) hilarious part of the whole saga. In the run-up to Alaska's 2008 Police Memorial Day event, Monegan visited Palin in Anchorage and brought along an official portrait of a state trooper in uniform, saluting in front of the police memorial in Anchorage, for Palin to sign and present at the event. The trooper? Mike Wooten.
Palin signed the photo and didn't say anything, according to Monegan's testimony, but later cancelled her attendance at the event, sending Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell in her place. The head of her Anchorage office followed up with a call to Monegan berating him for his insensitivity. (Monegan swears he didn't know it was Wooten in the picture, and that he didn't even know what Wooten looked like.)
Shortly after that incident, Monegan's fate was cast. But even then, Palin's staffers were blithely adding more evidence to Troopergate. When Monegan's potential successor, Chuck Kopp, asked Bailey, the Palin staffer, why Monegan was being fired, he was told simply: "Todd is really upset with Monegan."
So what does this say about the possible Vice-President of the United States? Certainly not as much as her enemies would have hoped. She was only directly involved in a small bit of the pressure campaign " a meeting or two and a couple of emails. She can thank Monegan for not having her hands dirtier; it was he who told her to keep herself at "arm's length" from any Wooten conversations.
But even though she won't likely face any legal repercussions, the amateurism and cronyism of her brief administration hardly leaves Palin sitting pretty. Troopergate's final verdict may be even more damaging than a rebuke: her administration was, at least this regard, just as self-motivated as the Washington fat cats and lobbyists she hopes to unseat.
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