Saturday, September 6, 2008



Published: September 5, 2008

Senior lawmakers in the Alaska State Legislature said Friday that they would seek subpoenas to compel seven witnesses to answer questions in an ethics inquiry into whether Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president, improperly put pressure on state officials to dismiss her former brother-in-law, a state trooper.

The lawmakers overseeing the inquiry said the investigator would deliver a final report by Oct. 10 to allow both sides ample time to respond before the presidential election. Ms. Palin, after pledging for weeks that she would cooperate with the investigation, has in recent days begun to challenge the Legislature’s jurisdiction in the inquiry.

The list of people the investigator is seeking to question — including a top Palin aide, the state personnel director and the cabinet-level commissioner of administration — indicates that the inquiry is focusing on accusations that the governor’s office unlawfully breached the personnel file of the trooper, Mike Wooten. He has had a particularly contentious divorce and custody battle with Ms. Palin’s sister.

Separately, the state troopers’ union lodged an ethics complaint this week against Ms. Palin and members of her administration, alleging that they had unlawfully gained access to Mr. Wooten’s personnel file.

The pursuit of the subpoenas, which are scheduled for a vote before a joint hearing of the Alaska House and Senate Judiciary Committees next Friday, increased tensions in the ethics controversy embroiling Ms. Palin as she seeks to become vice president.

The case seems certain to play out under the glare of the presidential campaign and amid considerable rancor between the governor’s office and the Legislature. Lawmakers said they were forced to seek subpoenas after the seven witnesses abruptly canceled appointments this week to be deposed by the Legislature’s investigator, Stephen Branchflower, a longtime Anchorage prosecutor.

The lawmakers asserted that Ms. Palin’s lawyer, Thomas V. Van Flein, had forbidden members of her administration to have any contact with the investigator.

“That is a misrepresentation of what is going on,” Mr. Van Flein said. “There are several witnesses who have their own lawyers, and they took their own positions.”

He added, “My client is just waiting to tell her side of the story, but we’re not going to do it secretly, in a closed room.”

The ethics controversy stems from Ms. Palin’s dismissal in July of Walt Monegan, the public safety commissioner, in what he has said was retaliation for his refusal to dismiss Mr. Wooten. Ms. Palin has accused Mr. Wooten of threatening her family and drinking while driving his patrol car. The governor denies that Mr. Monegan’s dismissal was related to Mr. Wooten’s case.

The increasingly adversarial relationship between the lawmakers supervising the inquiry and Ms. Palin’s office stands in sharp contrast with the spirit of cooperation she had promised to bring to the inquiry, even as she questioned the need for an outside investigator.

“I’m happy to comply, to cooperate,” Ms. Palin told the Anchorage television station KTUU in late July. “I have absolutely nothing to hide, no problem with an independent investigation.”

In early August she said, “We are very, very open to answering any questions anybody has of me or my administrators.”

But on Aug. 29, the day that Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, named Ms. Palin to his ticket, her lawyer, Mr. Van Flein, sent a letter to the state-appointed investigator asserting that, though he would cooperate with the Legislature’s inquiry, the accusations should be investigated by the state personnel board.

According to the letter, obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Van Flein argued that state law made the personnel board “properly vested with primary jurisdiction.”

Ms. Palin took the extraordinary step Tuesday of filing an ethics complaint against herself, making the matter fall within the bailiwick of the personnel board. Mr. Van Flein then asked the Legislature to drop its inquiry.

The three members of the personnel board are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. The proceedings of the board are conducted in secret, in contrast with the public deliberations of the Legislature.