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Subpoenas weighed in Palin probe

Alaska lawmakers will consider making aides to the governor testify in an inquiry into her firing of an official.

September 06, 2008|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

ANCHORAGE — Several top Alaska state legislators said Friday that they would meet next week to consider authorizing subpoenas to force aides to Gov. Sarah Palin to testify in a probe into whether she abused her powers when she fired the state's public safety commissioner.

Palin ousted Walter Monegan in July, saying she wanted to go in a "new direction," but Monegan has said he was axed after he repeatedly refused to sack Alaska State Trooper Michael Wooten, who was involved in a messy divorce from Palin's sister.

Wooten, who had not talked about the controversy, surfaced for the first time Friday and downplayed Palin's charges against him, denying to CNN that he had ever threatened the life of her father, Chuck Heath.

"I didn't threaten him, and I never threatened anyone," Wooten said.

Palin, who is now the Republican vice presidential nominee, wrote to state police officials in an Aug. 10, 2005, e-mail that Wooten had threatened: "I will kill him. He'll eat a . . . lead bullet, I'll shoot him." When pressed about whether Palin had lied, Wooten said he would not talk about the Palin family. A call to Wooten's residence was not returned.

The Alaska legislators said Friday that they had no plans to subpoena Palin to force testimony from the governor because she had promised to cooperate. But Democratic state Sen. Hollis French, one of the legislators involved in the inquiry, said seven of Palin's aides had recently declined to be deposed. Palin's lawyer also has pressed to have the matter handled by the Alaska Personnel Board, an agency whose three members are Republican appointees.

Palin's attorney, Thomas V. Van Flein, warned that the Legislature has only "limited investigatory power" -- a caution that some Democratic legislators worry is a prelude to a court battle that would tie the case in knots until after the November election.

"It would be very easy for them to run out the clock," said state Rep. Les Gara, a Democrat pressing for subpoenas. Gara said that if attorneys for Palin and her aides took the case to court, it would wind its way to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Republican lawmakers minimized that threat. "I think a report will be forthcoming in a timely fashion," said state Rep. Jay Ramras, who has been involved with French in a bipartisan effort to look into Monegan's firing.

Both French and Ramras said in a joint statement that they expected a report delivered by Oct. 10 -- well before the election.

"We're trying to make sure there's no October surprise for either party," Ramras said.

The tortured history between Wooten; his ex-wife, Molly McCann -- who is Palin's sister -- and the Palins came to the fore in July after the Alaska governor fired Monegan, her public safety commissioner, who had previously worked for both Republicans and Democrats.

Wooten, 36, a beefy, bull-necked former Air Force veteran, has been an Alaska state trooper since March 2001. McCann and her relatives lodged a series of allegations against Wooten soon after their marriage began to disintegrate in early 2005.

The allegations resulted in a five-day suspension for Wooten in March 2006. Col. Julia Grimes, head of the state troopers, ruled that the "record clearly indicates a serious and concentrated pattern of unacceptable and at times illegal activity occurring over a lengthy period."

Among other charges, Palin and her family accused Wooten not only of threatening Palin's father but also of using an electronic stun gun on his stepson, drinking beer in his patrol car and illegally shooting and killing a moose -- a serious crime in Alaska, where the large beasts are venerated and roam fields and even city streets at will.

Court filings in the divorce and custody battle between Wooten and McCann detail the bitter relations between the couple as their marriage fell apart.

On one occasion, McCann sought a restraining order from the courts, alleging Wooten was a threat to her children. Wooten has denied her charge, and an Alaska judge in 2005 dismissed the domestic violence complaint, but then issued an order limiting contact between the couple.

"I feel strongly that Wooten is a loose cannon," Palin wrote to the state police in April 2005 -- when she was still mayor of Wasilla. "He's a ticking timebomb, as others describe him, and I am afraid his actions do not merely reflect poorly on the state, but his actions may cause someone terrible harm."

But Wooten remained on the force.

Palin, who was elected governor in 2006, continued to seek Wooten's firing.

In recent interviews, Monegan said that Palin repeatedly insisted that Wooten was not fit to be a state trooper.

"I felt I was being pressured to fire him," Monegan told CNN on Friday.

He added she was "constantly asking questions" about Wooten and told him "this is not the kind of trooper we want." Monegan did not respond Friday to calls to his home.

Palin has said she fired Monegan because she wanted to go in a "new direction."

Several legislators on Friday said the governor's vagueness in explaining Monegan's firing was why they were investigating whether she may have abused the powers of her office.

"She created her own mess by giving us a soundbite rationale," Gara said.

Although the legislators looking into Monegan's firing have different takes on how to proceed, lawmakers from both parties insisted the investigation must proceed.

"The issue at hand is very serious," said Ramras, the Republican legislator, "how the chief executive of our state is handling herself and how her government comports itself."


Times staff writer Tom Hamburger in Anchorage and researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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