THE PLANK AUGUST 29, 2008
In Alaska, it's known as Troopergate and, sometimes, Wootengate.
Newly selected GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Alaska's first female governor, has been dogged by controversy since July 11, when she fired Public Safety Commissoner Walter Monegan. At the time, a spokesperson for Palin said the 44-year-old governor wanted to take the public safety department in a new direction. Monegan said any complaints from the governor about his job performance had "never been communicated" to him.
Then things started to get messy. Reports arose that Palin had fired Monegan because, despite pressure from her, her family, and her staff, he had refused to fire State Trooper Mike Wooten, the ex-husband of Palin's sister, Molly McCann. Monegan told The Anchorage Daily News that "for better than a year," his office had received phone calls and other inquiries from Palin's office and even her husband, Todd, about why Wooten hadn't been dismissed. At the time, he was embroiled in a custody fight with McCann. Todd said he had set up a meeting with Monegan in December 2006, just after his wife took office, to discuss Wooten, but insisted that he never told Monegan to fire the trooper.
Palin has claimed that she didn't know about any pressure being placed on Monegan. On August 13, she released a recording of a call placed by her boards and commissions director Frank Bailey to trooper Lt. Rodney Dial in February. In the call, Bailey accused Wooten of misconduct, including lying on an application, and said that Palin was concerned about Monegan's inaction. Palin also acknowledged that other members of her staff, including her chief of staff Mike Tibbles, had contacted Monegan about Wooten roughly two dozen times. Palin insisted that she had "only now become aware of" the contacts. She quickly placed Bailey on paid leave.
Palin and her family, however, have been feuding with Wooten since 2005, when he and Molly divorced, and the governor hasn't been hands-off in the debate. In August 2005, Palin sent a lengthy e-mail to Colonel Julia Grimes, director of the state's troopers, with a litany of complaints about Wooten's conduct. She accused Wooten of driving drunk, using illegal hunting techniques, abusing and cheating on his wife, threatening to kill his father-in-law, and tasering his stepson, Payton, in the presence of the governor's daughter, Bristol. "It is my understanding that months ago you were made aware of Wooten's problems," Palin wrote. "So the question begs: Is it acceptable for an Alaska State Trooper to use his badge and power in the aforementioned ways?"
In March 2006, Grimes suspended Wooten for ten working days, citing the tasering incident, illegal hunting, and drinking in his trooper vehicle. Monegan has alleged that Palin's staff and family continued to exert pressure on him to fire Wooten until his dismissal last month.
Now, Palin is facing a state ethics investigation about possible misconduct in Monegan's firing. Approved by Alaska's legislature, the investigation will cost at least $100,000 and be conducted by Anchorage prosecutor Stephen Branchflower, under the supervision of state senator Hollis French, a Democrat. The legislature has asked for an initial report by October 31, just prior to the general election November 4.