I’ve read through the Troopergate report and some of the commentary arising from it, and the McCain/Palin ticket appears to have a mixed bag. The report acknowledges the obvious: Governor Sarah Palin has the right to fire political appointees for whatever reason she desires. The termination of Walt Monegan was completely within her purview and her authority. However, we hold politicians to higher standards, or at least we should, and the report’s conclusion that she abused her power in light of her husband’s actions in attempting to get Trooper Mike Wooten fired will stick in voters’ minds in the final days of the election.
Jazz Shaw, no Palin fan, notes the ethics issue for the prosecution:
The report says Palin failed to reign in her husband’s inappropriate efforts to use the governor’s office to contact trooper employees in his attempts to have Wooten fired.
“Governor Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda … to get Trooper Michael Wooten fired,” Branchflower’s report says.
“Compliance with the code of ethics is not optional. It is an individual responsibility imposed by law, and any effort to benefit a personal interest through official action is a violation of that trust. … The term ‘benefit’ is very broadly defined, and includes anything that is to the person’s advantage or personal self-interest.”
The result of this is that the report will be turned over to the President of the State Senate for possible disciplinary action. McCain’s supporters are already in full swing, furiously trying to spin the report into something palatable, but it’s hard to see this as anything but another black eye for the Arizona Senator’s campaign. The responses will say that Palin didn’t technically break any laws. (Well, I suppose that’s technically true on some levels, assuming you don’t think of ethics laws as… errr, you know.. “laws.’) They are also decrying the investigation as a partisan witch hunt. (The panel convened to investigate this was comprised of eight Republicans and four Democrats.)
The investigation started at the request of another Republican — Sarah Palin. The allegations of a “partisan witch hunt” began when the legislative master of the investigation, Democratic state Senator Hollis French, started promising an “October Surprise” and embarrassment for John McCain before one witness had even been deposed. French further clouded the investigation by interfering with subpoenas, blocking one for a witness to a meeting in which all other attendees had been subpoenaed … and that witness had run the meeting, and was also Palin’s chief of staff. There is plenty of evidence that French wanted a partisan outcome and not justice.
But still, if Todd Palin was bullying people to fire a non-political appointee for personal reasons, using the implied authority of his wife, and Sarah Palin knew about it and didn’t stop it, that would be a breach of ethics. Most people would agree that a police officer who drank alcohol in his patrol car, tasered his 10-year-old stepson, and threatened to murder his estranged wife’s father should not be working in law enforcement. All of those allegations were confirmed by Alaska in an investigation. However, the job of trooper is not a political appointment, and if Todd Palin acted in a manner reported by this investigation, it would be improper and subject to some sort of censure from the Legislature.
That’s a big if, though, and the matter is far from closed. Beldar, speaking for the defense, notes that the report reflects the opinion of one man hired by French, and has not yet been accepted by the Legislature:
Even the Anchorage Daily News is misrepresenting the meaning of this report: I just received an email update from it in which it claims that “Today Alaska legislators found Palin did abuse her power in the ‘Troopergate’ controversy.” That’s absolutely false — the Alaska Legislature is not in session, and all that happened today was that the 12-member Legislative Council that received the Branchflower Report voted unanimously to release its first volume (the 263-page .pdf file linked above) to the public. Several more volumes and hundreds more pages prepared by Branchflower still remain confidential — suggesting that Branchflower’s selective quotations in the report may well have been “cherry-picked” or taken out of context — but the governor’s office has itself posted quite a few more documents pertaining to the investigation on the internet, confirming Gov. Palin’s repeated statements that she has nothing to hide in this entire matter.
Beldar, an attorney himself, also has some criticism for the investigator:
Instead, Branchfire has piled a guess (that the Palins wanted Wooten fired, rather than, for example, counseled, disciplined, or reassigned) on top of an inference (that when the Palins expressed concern to Monegan about Wooten, they were really threatening to fire Monegan if he didn’t fire Wooten) on top of an innuendo (that Gov. Palin “fired” Monegan at least in part because of his failure to fire Wooten) — from which Branchflower then leaps to a legal conclusion: “abuse of authority.” Branchflower reads the Ethics Act to prohibit any governmental action or decision made for justifiable reasons benefiting the State if that action or decision might also make a public official happy for any other reason. That would mean, of course, that governors must never act or decide in a way that makes them personally happy as a citizen, or as a wife or mother or daughter, and that they could only take actions or make decisions which left them feeling neutral or upset. This an incredibly shoddy tower of supposition, and a ridiculous misreading of the law.
Branchflower puts under a microscope every direct and indirect contact that can possibly be claimed to to come, directly or indirectly, from Gov. Palin or her husband, Todd. In none of them did either Sarah or Todd Palin demand or request that Wooten be fired. Some of them date back to before Gov. Palin was even a candidate for governor. All of them are equally well explained by legitimate concerns that Wooten was a potential threat to the Palin family (having already made death threats against Gov. Palin’s father) and/or an embarrassment to the Alaska Department of Public Safety and the entire state law enforcement community. That the Palins also had strong — and entirely understandable! — negative feelings about Trooper Wooten does not make any of these communications remotely improper, much less illegal.
Nevertheless, Branchflower leaps to the personal conclusion (page 67 of the .pdf file) that “such claims of fear were not bona fide and were offered to provide cover for the Palins’ real motivation: to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family related reasons.” Well, here’s another memo to Mr. Branchflower: When the family is question is the family of the Governor of Alaska, and when her security detail is charged with protecting her from threats, and in the process of that, the security detail actively seeks out information as to who may have previously made death threats against the family, that’s no longer solely a “personal family related reason.” And when someone like Trooper Wooten threatens to bring ridicule and shame to the entire state of Alaska, that’s no longer solely a “personal family related reason” either.
Branchflower, I’m told, is an attorney and a former prosecutor. If he thinks this kind of nonsense could support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, or even a finding of proof by a preponderance of the evidence, then he may be the worst lawyer I’ve ever encountered — and I’ve met a lot of awful ones in almost three decades before the bar.
That brings us to the main point of this exercise. It will produce no certainty whatsoever, thanks to the Legislative Council’s inaction in the face of Hollis French’s efforts to turn this investigation into a present for Barack Obama. The LC should have bounced both French and Branchflower after the “October Surprise” comment and replaced them with people of less partisan temperament. Instead, we have a report that both clears the Governor and indicts her spouse in a contradictory, confusing judgment that appears to have been looking for some self-justification for all of the time and money spent on it.
Palin runs almost zero risk of any sort of rebuke on the basis of this report in Alaska, but the election may be a different matter. The phrase “abuse of power” resonates with voters, even when it’s applied to the candidate’s spouse. Had the report come out two months ago, when no one paid any attention, it would probably be a nothingburger. Now, with three weeks left in the campaign, it’s going to dent the reform message of John McCain, which was the main reason he asked Palin to be his running mate. It won’t convince current supporters to reject McCain, but it will make it a little more difficult to convince undecideds.