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New Front in Palin's 'Troopergate' Mess
In a new front for Gov. Sarah Palin’s “Troopergate” troubles, a top Alaska Democratic lawmaker has called on the state’s attorney general to appoint an independent investigator to probe whether operatives in Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign broke Alaska’s criminal witness-tampering laws.
In a letter to Attorney General Talis Colberg, state Rep. Les Gara alleges that McCain’s campaign staffers influenced witnesses close to Palin to get them to withhold cooperation from a legislative inquiry into whether Palin abused her authority in pursuing a vendetta against her ex-brother-in-law, a state trooper.
“I am concerned that the state’s criminal witness-tampering laws have been broken by certain staff for Sen. McCain’s presidential campaign,” Gara wrote to Colberg on Monday.
Gara said the McCain staff arrived in Alaska after Palin was picked as McCain’s running mate on Aug. 29 and spent the next month and a half trying “to stall or stop” the investigation by getting several senior Palin aides and her husband Todd to balk at giving depositions.
Gara noted that Palin’s aides had agreed in July to be deposed about allegations that Palin improperly fired Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan after he refused to fire her ex-brother-in-law, Trooper Mike Wooten. However, after Palin’s selection as the GOP vice presidential nominee, the aides reneged.
Colberg, a close Palin ally, rebuffed Gara’s request on Tuesday, urging that the lawmaker instead take his concern to the state personnel board and ask that the board expand its existing review of Palin’s actions.
“You suggest that my department may have a conflict of interest in investigating or supervising the investigation of the matter directly,” Colberg wrote. “Since the scope of the [personnel board] investigation ,,, has greatly expanded, investigator Timothy Petumenos ... may be willing to add the federal witness-tampering criminal allegations to his inquiry.”
Despite resistance to the subpoenas from Palin’s aides and from Colberg, the legislative inquiry on “Troopergate” was completed on Oct. 10 with a finding that Palin had abused her authority and violated the state ethics law that bars officials from using their positions to further personal aims.
Gara began his push to have the witness-tampering issue addressed last month with a letter to Colonel Audie Holloway, director of the Alaska State Troopers.
"Something has caused, or in the words of the statute, may have ‘induced’ these witnesses to change their position," Gara wrote. "It seems a witness would not risk possible jail time that comes with the violations of a subpoena without advice of others."
Holloway responded in writing to Gara on Oct. 2, agreeing that the witness-tampering concerns were a “serious issue” but declining to pursue an investigation because of the unusual situation surrounding the possible crime.
“Although the Alaska State Troopers are mandated to enforce criminal and regulatory laws throughout the state, investigations into reported violations are always subject to certain practical limitations even in normal situations. The current situation is anything but normal,” Holloway wrote.
Holloway noted that the underlying dispute involved his state troopers -- and that Attorney General Colberg had been party to the Palin administration’s efforts to contest subpoenas served on Palin’s aides.
Given these concerns, Holloway concluded, “The short answer is that I cannot dedicate resources at this time.”
But he suggested that Gara might seek a directive from the legislature and the executive branch for the state troopers to hire an “unbiased investigator for this type of sensitive investigation.”
The “Troopergate” investigation has centered on whether the governor, her husband and several of her senior aides pressured Public Safety Commissioner Monegan to fire Trooper Wooten, who was in an ugly divorce and child custody dispute with Gov. Palin's sister.
Besides faulting the Palins and the governor's associates for applying this pressure, the Oct. 10 investigative report by special counsel Steve Branchflower criticized Attorney General Colberg for not turning over e-mails to assist the probe, further suggesting that Gara's letter will receive a cool reception from Colberg.
In his letter to Colberg, Gara cited a pattern of behavior by the Palin administration “suggesting our criminal laws may have been broken.”
“Until Aug. 29 [when Palin was tapped by McCain as his running mate] no witness ever refused to comply with a request by the Independent Investigator [Branchflower] for an interview,” Gara wrote.
“Starting Aug. 29 witnesses who had never objected to the investigation suddenly refused to voluntarily show up for interviews with Mr. Branchflower. After refusing to show up voluntarily, these witnesses then refused to show up for subpoena’s issued by the Legislature.
“It is hard to believe that witnesses who had never previously objected to appearing for testimony would risk, without outside advice or pressure, the potential jail time that comes with a refusal to comply with a subpoena.
“Between Aug. 29 and the release of the Independent Investigator’s report on Oct. 10, approximately 10 witnesses failed to show up before the Senate Judiciary Committee for their subpoenas. After failing to show up for subpoenas, these witnesses did later provide written statements.
“Their later decision to submit to written questions, after failing to show up for their subpoenas, doesn’t cure this violation, or any criminal conduct by any person who attempted to induce those witnesses from showing for their subpoenas.”
Gara said, “It appears there has been contact with witnesses, previously willing to cooperate in this investigation, and that persons may have ‘attempted’ to ‘induce’ them not to comply.”
In another development, an attorney hired by Alaska’s personnel board to investigate whether Gov. Palin violated state ethics laws in the “Troopergate” case is expected to depose the governor and her husband this week at an undisclosed location in another state.
Timothy Petumenos, the attorney hired by the personnel board, will spend about six hours interviewing Palin and her husband, Todd, according to Thomas Van Flein, an attorney representing the Palins. It’s unknown whether Petunmenos will release a report prior to the Nov. 4 election.
Petumenos's investigation is said to include at least two other ethics complaints filed against Palin, one of which is believed to be a complaint filed by the Public Safety Employees Union alleging Palin and her aides illegally accessed her ex- brother-in-law's personnel files and improperly and illegally tried to get him fired from his job as a state trooper.
Citizen watchdog Andree McLeod filed the only other publicly known ethics complaint against Palin. McLeod alleges the governor secured a state job for one of her fundraisers.
On Sept. 2, just a day before accepting the GOP nomination, Palin took the unusual step of filing an ethics complaint against herself, a move that was designed to head off the legislative inquiry.
Palin and her campaign advisers appeared to be betting that the personnel board would clear her of wrongdoing in the firing of Commissioner Monegan. The board’s three members are appointed by the governor, although two are holdovers from her Republican predecessor, former Gov. Frank Murkowski.
Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.
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