“This morning the world was asking 'who is Sarah Palin?'” the wiki Sarah Palin Scandal commented on Aug. 29. “By the afternoon, people were asking 'what is Troopergate?'… John McCain's seemingly unblemished choice for a running mate might have a big ugly ethical stain on her young political career. This whole thing is a big messy he-said she-said that reeks of a bad Jerry Springer episode.” (1)
The tale of “Troopergate” begins in the fall of 2004, when Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten and his wife, Molly McCann, began divorce proceedings. (McCann is Sarah Palin's younger sister; Charles Heath is their father). As Andrew Halcro, an Alaska political blogger who has covered the story extensively, tells it:
The beginning of the divorce proceedings set off a chain of bizarre and chilling events that has continued through today…. Beginning in spring of 2005 and for the next ten months, over 25 formal complaints were filed by Palin and Heath family members against Trooper Mike Wooten. From drinking while driving his patrol car to making threats to shooting a moose without a permit….
But it didn't stop there. Threatening phone calls, private detectives that were hired to follow Wooten, notes left on windshields, Todd Palin [Sarah's husband] taking pictures then submitting them to Wooten's supervisor, all designed to intimidate Wooten into backing off from demanding equal child custody rights.
But every time they filed a spurious complaint, the Troopers would bring in an Administrative Investigator who after seeing more than two dozen of these ridiculous and time consuming complaints stated that in all his years he had never seen such a shotgun pattern against one officer. (2)
Most of the complaints turned out to be unfounded. “According to Trooper records, Sarah Palin said that in January and February of 2005, Wooten was drinking while driving. After investigating the complaint, the investigator found that Palin never actually saw what she reported.
“In another complaint, Sarah's father said that Wooten made threatening remarks. Again, the investigator found there was no probable way that it could have happened.”
According to Halcro's original reporting, Wooten admitted to one of the charges; two years previously, he had shot a moose without a state moose-hunting permit:
In 2003, Wooten, his wife and a friend were moose hunting. Upon spotting a moose, Wooten instructed his wife to shoot the moose since she had the permit, she refused so Wooten did.
After carting the moose back to town, Sarah's father actually butchered it in his garage, and Wooten shared the meat with both Sarah and Todd Palin as well as her parents.
(Palin-booster Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard blog reveals that Sarah Palin “says her favorite meal is moose stew or mooseburgers.”) (3)
Two years later, “during the divorce battle, the family filed a complaint alleging that Wooten had taken that moose illegally. At least they waited until they finished the meat to file the complaint against Wooten.”
Other sources have since reported that three other charges against Wooten were upheld:
- He drank beer in his patrol car on one occasion.
- He told others his father-in-law would “eat a f'ing lead bullet” if he helped his daughter get an attorney for the divorce. (4)
- Mike Wooten, who is also certified as a Taser instructor, dry-fired a Taser at his stepson at the lowest possible setting at the kid's request. (5)
[UPDATE, Sep. 8: Further research shows that Wooten was cleared of the "drinking beer in his patrol car" charge, which was based on a hearsay complaint by Sarah Palin. However, "former Alaska state trooper" Julia Grimes reversed the finding and punished Wooten anyway, arguing: "Are you going to call Sarah Palin a liar?" See note (15).]
Wooten was reprimanded and suspended for 10 days without pay (which was reduced to five after his union filed a grievance).
Meanwhile in court, Wooten prevailed at every turn as Judge Suddock quickly realized there was a concerted effort to damage Wooten. Finally the judge warned that if any of their actions caused Wooten to lose his job or pay in anyway, Molly and her family would be held liable.
In another article, Halcro notes that “In Wooten's eight year career, the only complaints that have been filed against him came from people associated with Governor Palin during a divorce and child custody fight in which they were trying to get him fired so he wouldn't be able to get custody of his children.” (6)
Palin was elected Governor of Alaska in November 2006. In December, she appointed Walt Monegan, former Anchorage chief of police, as Alaska's new Commissioner of Public Safety.
Shortly afterward, Todd Palin met with Monegan and gave him
a dossier of information on Wooten compiled by Todd and a private investigator. Monegan looked at the information and determined that, “There was no new evidence, no new complaints.”… After looking at Wooten's file, Monegan called Todd Palin back and said there was nothing he could do. “I tried to explain to him, 'You can't head-hunt like this…. What you need to do is back off, because if the trooper does make a mistake, and it is a terminable offense, if can look like political interference.'”
Monegan also called Gov. Palin on her cell phone. “I explained to her there was no new evidence, the issue was closed. She also was unhappy with that.” (7)
In February 2007, Gov. Palin herself allegedly told Monegan, “to fire Wooten because he was giving Troopers a bad name. However Monegan said he would do no such thing.” (Monegan later said his actual reply was, “Ma'am, I need to keep you at arm's length with this. I can't deal about him with you. If need be, I can talk to Todd.” ) (7)
The following year, “At the request of the court, Wooten and his ex-wife were instructed to return to re-visit the custody schedule. Once the paper work started in April of 2008, the complaints and the intimidation started all over again. Twice in the last few months complaints were filed by the governor's office accusing Wooten of improperly using his patrol car. Both times he was visiting his kids at school and both times he had permission from his sargent. The last complaint came in May after Todd Palin saw Wooten pulling out of the school parking lot and six days later the complaint landed on Wooten's supervisor's desk….
A short time afterwards, it was discovered that confidential material in Wooten's Administrative Investigation file had been released to his ex-wife and her attorney. This drew outrage from the Public Safety Union as well as the Commissioner. AI files are strictly confidential and can only be released with the written signature of the Trooper, but yet no one could explain how the detailed confidential information was released.
Reportedly, both Commissioner Monegan and Colonel Audie Halloway [Commander of the State Troopers] warned that if they found out the file was leaked by the governor's office, they would pursue charges.
Monegan was fired by Palin's office on July 11. Her chief of staff told Monegan that the governor wanted “to go in another direction,” Monegan said. “When I was let go, I was a little surprised. There was not a warning shot or anything.” (7)
There was also no public explanation from the Governor, who was out of town. She was still out of town, and there was still no explanation for the firing, on July 15 when Monegan's successor, Chuck Kopp, was announced.
On July 17, Halcro posted on his blog “that Monegan was fired because he disagreed with the governor on budget priorities and that he was being pressured to fire a State Trooper who happened to be Governor Palin's ex-brother in law.” The same day, “the Public Safety Employees Association, at the request of Trooper Mike Wooten, released to the media his personal file detailing the lengthy list of complaints filed against him by Governor Palin and her family.” (8)
Palin responded with a public statement later in the day, declaring: “To allege that I, or any member of my family, requested, received or released confidential personnel information on an Alaska State Trooper, or directed disciplinary action be taken against any employee of the Department of Public Safety, is, quite simply, outrageous.” (9)
Rumors began circulating that Halcro's charges were politically motivated. (Halcro, a former state Republican, had run against Palin for Governor as an Independent, receiving 10% of the vote.)
However, Monegan went public the next day, telling KTUU-TV that “Todd Palin, Frank Bailey (of the Governor's office), and Annette Krietzer, Commissioner of Administration, all pressured him to fire Wooten, which he declined to do, and he also said that he finally told the administration that the conversations about firing Wooten had to stop.” (8)
On July 28, the Joint Legislative Council voted 12-0 to formally call for an investigation; which prompted Gov. Palin to tell CNBC's Larry Kudlow that “a couple of lawmakers who weren't happy with that decision, certainly are looking at me as a target right now.” (10)
On Aug. 1, former state district attorney Steve Branchflower was hired to investigate Palin's dismissal of Monegan. Branchflower, who has subpoena power and a budget of up to $100,000, is in the midst of an investigation lawmakers hope to have concluded before the November elections. (11)
Palin ordered Attorney General Talis Colberg to launch his own pre-emptive investigation, while continuing to proclaim her administration's innocence. That phase lasted for two weeks; then, on Wednesday, August 13:
The governor hastily called a press conference to announce that her administration did in fact make calls regarding Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten. Palin said her administration made more than 20 calls to the Department of Public Safety regarding Wooten, the governor's former brother-in-law. Palin previously had denied her administration pressured Monegan but at least one of those calls was caught on tape….
The governor released the tape to the media Wednesday and called it “out of bounds.”
In the call [Palin aide Frank] Bailey told [Trooper Lt. Rodney] Dial the Palins were frustrated Wooten had kept his job.
“Everything that has come back to Todd and the governor, there's nothing we can do and that's very frustrating,” Bailey said.
Bailey goes on to say the governor is unhappy Monegan won't take action.
“The CD of this conversation is obviously problematic because Mr. Bailey seemed to be speaking on my behalf — and because he complained in this conversation that Trooper Wooten had not been terminated,” said the governor. “But Mr. Bailey was not speaking for me. His comments were unauthorized as well as just wrong.” (12)
Bailey was placed on indefinite suspension. He will continue to collect his $78,528 salary while suspended.
According to Halcro, there are more revelations to follow: “Palin and her staff have been using their state issued Blackberrys and computers to conduct acts of personal retribution, and the attorney general is covering for them…. According to one of my sources who tipped me off about the Bailey phone call days before it was publicly released as well as the Kopp payout days before it was publicly released;… there is credible evidence of Blackberry communications that Palin herself communicated with her staff and Monegan about firing Wooten.” (13)
For her part, Palin describes Halcro as “a very, very bitter person, obviously.” She calls his website a gossip blog and says she doesn't read it. (14)
When Sarah Palin ran for Governor in 2006, her campaign website promised voters: “Sarah will open the door wide to transparent and accountable government.”
As late as November 2007, Palin was issuing press releases stating things like: “Public trust and integrity are the foundation of good government. This reaffirms my commitment to conduct the people's business in an open and transparent fashion.” (13)
However, things have changed. Attorney General Colberg (a Palin appointee) recently ruled “that state employees have a right to privacy while using state issued communication equipment,” meaning Branchflower cannot investigate those communications at will. (Hence Halcro's charge of cover-up.)
Palin's Communication Director, Bill McAllister, defended the abandonment of the “open and transparent government” promise by telling the Anchorage Daily News that it was never meant to apply to everything: “Open and transparent government was something that came up during the campaign and was largely in reference to the stranded gas act versus the AGIA concept under Governor Palin.” Pressed further, he added: “Open and transparent does not mean you lose all common sense and conduct everything out in the open.” (13)
In July, 2007, neocon Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard blog was hailing Palin as “a politician of eye-popping integrity,” adding: “Her rise is a great (and rare) story of how adherence to principle — especially to transparency and accountability in government — can produce political success.” (3)
Whom, if anyone, the “Troopergate” scandal eventually destroys — Bailey, Colberg, Todd Palin, maybe even Gov. Palin herself — that promise of integrity and open, transparent government appears to be its first victim.
(1) “Sarah Palin Scandal Could Wreck McCain's Campaign,” Sarah Palin Scandal, Aug. 29, 2008. http://www.zimbio.com/Sarah+Palin+Scandal/articles/4/Sarah+Palin+Scandal+Wreck+McCain+Campaign
(2) All quotations in italics are from:
“Andrew Halcro, “Why Walt Monegan got fired: Palin's abuse of power,” AndrewHalcro.com, July 18, 2008.
(3) Fred Barnes, “The Most Popular Governor,” The Weekly Standard, 12:41 (July 16, 2007).
(4) Julie Demers, “Is Wooten a good trooper?”, Anchorage Da
ly News, July 27, 2008. http://www.adn.com/politics/story/476430.html
(5) Anchorage Activist, “The Truth about Tasers,” Alaska Pride, July 20, 2008. http://alaskapride.blogspot.com/2008/07/truth-about-tasers-tools-of-trade-or.html
(6) Andrew Halcro, “The Wooten Challenge,” AndrewHalcro.com, Aug. 15, 2008. http://www.andrewhalcro.com/the_wooten_challenge
(7) “Monegan to Palin: 'Ma'am, I Need to Keep You At Arm's Length',” Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2008. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/washingtonpostinvestigations/2008/08/monegan_to_palin_maam_i_need_t.html
(8) Andrew Halcro, “The Anatomy of a Scandal,” AndrewHalcro.com, July 19, 2008. http://www.andrewhalcro.com/the_anatomy_of_a_scandal
(9) Andrew Halcro, “Parsing Sarah Palin,” AndrewHalcro.com, July 17, 2008. http://www.andrewhalcro.com/parsing_palin
(10) “Gov. Sarah Palin on the Wooten scandal and VP,” YouTube, July 31, 2008. http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=Pak-rH0dCeA
(11) Bob Tkacz, “Northern Fights,” Part 2, Crosscut Seattle, Aug. 30, 2008. http://www.crosscut.com/law-justice/16935/Northern+fights/
(12) Jason Moore, “Palin: Monegan was pressured to fire Wooten,” KTUU, Aug. 13, 2008. http://www.ktuu.com/Global/story.asp?S=8837801
(13) Andrew Halcro, “Palin circles the wagons: Transparency a casualty,” AndrewHalco.com, Aug. 28, 2008. http://www.andrewhalcro.com/palin_circles_the_wagons_transparency_a_casualty
(14) Kyle Hopkins, “Halcro chronicles: Folk hero or sore loser?”, Anchorage Daily News, Aug. 18, 2008. http://www.adn.com/front/story/497064.html
(15) Alan Suderman, “Agency leader changed ruling in trooper case,” Juneau Empire, July 28, 2008. http://www.juneauempire.com/stories/072808/sta_310532640.shtmlTweet