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ELECTION 2008: ALASKA POLITICS

Palin didn't breach ethics laws in firing, report says

The conclusion differs with an earlier inquiry that said the governor had let her husband pressure an official.

November 04, 2008|Kim Murphy | Murphy is a Times staff writer.

SEATTLE — The investigation that has dogged Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's campaign for vice president took a dramatic, election-eve about-face Monday when the state personnel board concluded Palin did not breach state ethics laws when she fired her public safety commissioner.

The report, released hours before Palin was to return to Alaska to cast her ballot in her hometown of Wasilla, differs sharply with a legislative inquiry last month that found Palin had abused her office by allowing her husband to pressure the commissioner, Walt Monegan, to fire the Palins' former brother-in-law.

Monegan has said he felt pressure to fire trooper Mike Wooten, who had been involved in a messy divorce from Palin's sister. The governor fired Monegan in July.

Separately, in another election-eve disclosure, the McCain-Palin campaign released a two-page summary of Palin's medical records, which showed her to be in "excellent health."

The reports gave a last-minute boost to the campaign, especially since the personnel board's findings appear to undercut one of the most damaging allegations about Palin's governorship: that she abused her office in a campaign against Wooten and fired Monegan in part because he did not fire Wooten.

In a sharply worded rebuke, the new report from independent investigator Timothy J. Petumenos accused the investigator for the state Legislative Council of using the wrong statute to evaluate Palin's conduct, misconstruing the available evidence and failing to obtain all the "material" evidence needed to "properly" evaluate the case.

"There is no probable cause to believe that Gov. Palin violated the Alaska Executive Ethics Act by making the decision to dismiss . . . Monegan," concluded the new investigation, with which Palin cooperated fully. She had refused to cooperate with the earlier probe once she was chosen as Republican John McCain's running mate, saying it was biased.

The Legislative Council's investigator, attorney Stephen Branchflower, found that Palin violated the ethics statute's prohibition against using her office to advance a personal interest when she failed to stop her husband from pushing Monegan to fire Wooten. Branchflower also documented a number of other contacts between administration employees and Monegan in which they were said to have urged Wooten's ouster.

But Petumenos, an Anchorage trial lawyer who is a registered Democrat, concluded that Branchflower had incorrectly interpreted what constituted a "personal" interest and said Palin and her husband were within their rights to express "personal frustrations" over Wooten's conduct in the context of discussing public policy.

"To suggest that a public official cannot engage in discourse or express disagreement regarding matters of policy would be wholly inconsistent with their role in government," the report says.

Further, it says, Palin testified under oath that she was unaware of her husband's contacts with Monegan over Wooten in early 2007. In any case, it said, the ethics law does not require Palin to police the behavior of her husband or other parties.

The report says there was ample evidence in the form of e-mails and sworn testimony from other administration employees to document Palin's assertion that she fired Monegan not because of Wooten but because he was attempting to contravene her efforts to reduce the size of the state budget.

The report did criticize Palin's use of a private e-mail account and subsequent apparent deletion of many older e-mails.

"Independent counsel cannot say that any e-mails were destroyed that were pertinent to this inquiry. Neither can it be said that they were not," the report says.

Palin said in a statement released by her campaign that she is "pleased" the inquiry concluded she "acted properly" in the Monegan case.

"The governor is grateful that this investigation has provided a fair and impartial review of this matter, and upholds the governor's ability to take measures when necessary to ensure that Alaskans have the best possible team working to serve them," said the statement released by her campaign.

Monegan, the former public safety commissioner, told the Associated Press that he was "perplexed and disappointed" by the report, adding, "It does seem to fly in the face of circumstantial evidence."

The personnel board consists of three appointees, all of whom were originally appointed by former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski. Palin has since reappointed one of them. The members serve six-year terms and can be fired only for cause.

The health report from Palin's physician, Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, said Palin's main contact with the healthcare system had been through the birth of her five children, the latest of whom, Trig, was born in April at 35 weeks gestation, slightly premature.

Baldwin-Johnson said evidence of Trosomy 21, or Down syndrome, was detected in her latest pregnancy through routine prenatal testing early in the second trimester and confirmed by perinatology consultation and amniocentesis.

"She followed the normal and recommended schedule for prenatal care, including follow-up perinatology evaluations to ensure there was no significant congenital heart disease or other condition of the baby that would preclude delivery at her home community hospital," the doctor said.

The report did not note Palin's decision, apparently on the advice of her doctor, to take an eight-hour flight home from an energy conference in Texas to deliver the baby after she had begun to leak amniotic fluid.

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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