ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Alaska’s former commissioner of public safety claims that Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s pick to be vice president, personally talked to him on two occasions about a state trooper who was locked in a bitter custody battle with the governor’s sister.
In a phone conversation Friday night, Walt Monegan, who was Alaska’s top cop until Palin fired him July 11, told the Anchorage Daily News that the governor also had e-mailed him two or three times about the trooper, Mike Wooten, though the e-mails didn’t mention Wooten by name.
What role Palin played in seeking her ex-brother-in-law’s dismissal is the governor’s first brush with scandal in a political career that has been premised on reforming Alaska’s corruption-plagued Republican party and raises questions not only about her willingness to use her office to further a personal agenda but also about her administrative abilities.
Palin’s replacement for Monegan, Chuck Kopp, was forced to resign just two weeks after he was appointed because of a sexual harassment complaint that had been filed against him when he was the chief of police in Kenai, Alaska.
Palin, in a news conference announcing Kopp’s resignation July 24, said she was unaware that the Kenai City Council had reprimanded Kopp as a result of the complaint. She wouldn’t discuss how her staff had vetted Kopp before naming him to replace Monegan three days after Monegan was fired.
Monegan claims his refusal to fire Wooten was a major reason that Palin dismissed him. Wooten had been suspended for five days previously, based largely on complaints that Palin’s family had initiated before Palin became governor.
The events surrounding Monegan’s dismissal currently are under investigation by the state’s legislature. Palin has acknowledged that a member of her staff phoned a trooper lieutenant in an effort that could have been perceived as pressure to have Wooten dismissed and that her husband and other officials also had contacted Monegan about Wooten.
She’s insisted, however, that she did not authorize the phone call and was not aware of it. She has said she doesn’t believe any of the contacts amounted to pressuring Monegan. She suspended one of her aides after the recording of his discussions of Wooten with a trooper lieutenant became public.
“The Governor did nothing wrong and has nothing to hide,” the McCain/Palin campaign said in a statement, blaming the issue on the campaign of the Democratic nominee, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
“It’s outrageous that the Obama campaign is trying to attack her over a family issue. As a reformer and a leader on ethics reform, she has been happy to help out in the investigation of this matter, because she was never directly involved.”
But the trooper controversy has been swirling around Palin for weeks, long before Palin was launched Friday into the bright lights of the national campaign.
Monegan, however, said that Palin’s two contacts with him came after she became governor – once on the phone soon after she took office and once in person not long after that.
Monegan also said that the governor’s husband, Todd, talked to him several times about Wooten and that three top officials in her administration also contacted him.
Monegan also disclosed for the first time that Palin sent him two or three e-mails that referenced her ex-brother-in-law and his status as a trooper. Monegan declined to provide the e-mails because of the ongoing investigation.
Monegan said he believes his firing was directly related to the fact Wooten stayed on the job. “It was a significant factor, if not the factor,” Monegan said.
No one from the McCain campaign ever contacted him to vet Palin as a candidate, Monegan said.
Who did they contact? “We don’t talk about the vetting process,” said Maria Comella, Palin’s vice presidential campaign press secretary.
Palin apologized for the chaos that the Monegan dismissal and the Kopp resignation had caused. “This has been a tumultuous week in the Department of Public Safety, and as your governor, I apologize,” she said at the news conference.
Alaska’s legislature is spending up to $100,000 “to investigate the circumstances and events surrounding the termination of former Public Safety Commissioner Monegan, and potential abuses of power and/or improper actions by members of the executive branch.”
The investigation is supposed to wrap up by Oct. 31, just days before the Nov. 4 general election.
Palin will be deposed along with others in the governor’s office and former administration officials, said state Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat and former state prosecutor from Anchorage who is serving as the project director for the investigation. The special counsel just last week was trying to arrange Palin’s deposition, French said.
French said Palin’s new role as vice-presidential candidate won’t change the investigation.
“I think it raises the profile but it doesn’t really change the mission or the work,” the senator said.
Before she was governor, Palin pushed for a trooper investigation of Wooten over a number of matters, including using a Taser on his stepson, illegally shooting a moose, and accusations of driving drunk. At one point, Palin and her husband hired a private investigator.
Troopers did investigate, and Wooten was suspended for 10 days, later reduced to five. That took care of it, Monegan said. But the Palin administration and Todd Palin wouldn’t let go, he said.
Palin initially said that, after she took office in December 2006, she broached the subject of Wooten with Monegan just once, when they discussed her security detail. She said that she told Monegan that Wooten “had threatened to kill my dad and bring me down.” She said she thought that was the end of it.
Monegan said Palin called him on his cell phone one night in January 2007 about Wooten, but it wasn’t related to her security detail. He said he had already met with Todd Palin about Wooten, whom he hadn’t heard of before, and had looked into the family’s complaints only to learn they already had been investigated. Palin seemed frustrated that nothing more could be done, he said.
“For the record, no one ever said fire Wooten. Not the governor. Not Todd. Not any of the other staff,” Monegan said Friday from Portland. “What they said directly was more along the lines of ‘This isn’t a person that we would want to be representing our state troopers.’ ”
Palin again brought up Wooten in February 2007 as she and Monegan were walking together to wish a state senator a happy birthday, Monegan said. He said he told Palin he had to keep her at arm’s distance on the matter, and she agreed.