Troopergate: Analysis of Branchflower Report, Part I

Get the short summary and link to report here.

Finding 1: Branchflower finds that Sarah Palin violated Alaska state ethics by using her political position for personal gain. That was the primary focus of the investigation: whether or not Palin had improperly used her office in an attempt to fire her ex-brother-in-law, state trooper Mike Wooten. The American public does not take ethics violations lightly; particularly when the public is seeking an outsider to “clean up” government. Through the hundreds of pages of documentation, you read how persistently Sarah Palin, her Governor’s office staff, and her husband Todd Palin acted after being dissatisfied with the disciplinary actions taken against Wooten by an administrative investigation. You could rationalize that the Palins “only wanted justice served” and perhaps stronger disciplinary action against Wooten. But after reading the document you come away feeling that Sarah wanted Wooten fired and was not going to stop until she got what she wanted.

Mike Wooten was disciplined by an administrative board after his ex-father-in-law, Chuck Heath, filed official complaints against him. In the Branchwater document, Sarah Palin is repeated reported to reject the findings of the administrative investigation — she called the disciplinary action against Wooten a “slap on the wrist” — to demand that the investigation not only be revisited but overturned, and to be unable to justify wanting to fire Wooten for work-related problems subsequent to the administrative investigation. These are not traits befitting someone who wants to govern. It sounds more like the Wild West with Sarah as sheriff, judge, and posse.

I found the origins of Sarah’s abuse of power finding very interesting. It begins only a month after Sarah is elected governor in November 2006.  In December 2006, a staff member from Sarah’s office calls Monegan’s secretary to arrange a meeting between Todd Palin and Walt Monegan for January. Specifically, she calls to arrange a meeting between the “First Gentleman” and Monegan. The use of the term “First Gentleman” confuses Monegan’s secretary and she asks that Palin’s staff member repeat and then explain the term. So then to clarify herself, Palin’s staff member says, “Todd Palin”. That particular exchange sticks in Monegan’s secretary’s mind since it is when she learns the term, “First Gentleman”. It also implies that Todd moved through Sarah’s office with a title and authority.

At the meeting in early January 2007, Todd gives Monegan a stack of documents to review. The documents include a description of the administrative investigation of Wooten printed on official letterhead and signed by the lead investigator that the Palin’s could not and should not have received as private citizens.

In an interrogatory statement submitted through his lawyer, Todd Palin admits having a meeting that Monegan. But Todd claims that he mentioned the meeting to Sarah only after it occured. He states that Bob Cockrell, staff in charge of Sarah’s security, is the one who suggests that he speak with Monegan regarding Wooten. With that statement, Todd implies that Sarah’s out of the loop.

In the Branchflower report Monegan states that after meeting with Todd he immediately turns the documents over to an assistant for review. The assistant finds no issues in Todd’s documentation that are not covered and resolved by the initial administrative investigation. A few days later Monegan phones Todd to give him this news. Todd is unhappy and expresses displeasure. A few days after that Sarah calls Monegan to express her similar displeasure. Then a month later in a face-to-face encounter with Monegan Sarah again raises her concerns about Wooten; about his character and the lack of action taken against him by the admininstrative investigation. Monegan asks her to stay “an arm’s length away” from the issue and to let Todd talk to him about their concerns about Wooten. Sarah agrees. Then two weeks later Sarah’s chief of staff, Mike Tibbles, talks to Monegan about Wooten. Monegan expresses that he feels their conversation could be used against them should Wooten decide to bring a lawsuit against the state, presumably for workplace harassment. Monegan stops Tibbles from discussing the matter any further with him by asking Tibbles, “You don’t want Wooten to own your house, do you?” Tibbles replies that he does not.

So what’s happening? Is Todd going through the Sarah’s office and having her staff arrange his meetings with her department heads, gather official documents for him, and speak to Monegan on his behalf? Or is Todd acting at Sarah’s behest? Or, are they in this together? In any scenario, it looks bad. And this is just the beginning of the Palins’ contacts regarding Wooten. The remainder I’ll leave for Part II.

Finding 2: Branchflower states that Palin’s dismissal of Monegan was done within her authority and therefore is proper and lawful. However, Branchflower specifically cites Monegan’s failure to fire Wooten as likely contributing to his dismissal by Palin. Combined with the finding that Sarah Palin had abused her power in trying to get Wooten fired, Monegan’s dismissal, though legal, is highly tainted.

Throughout the Branchflower document, Monegan states that different sources (Sarah, Todd, Sarah’s staff) in many different exchanges deliver the same message: The Palins are not happy with Wooten. They are specifically displeased with the limited nature of the disciplinary action taken against him stemming from the initial complaint filed by Chuck Heath in 2005. I have yet to read Monegan say that he was told directly to fire Wooten because Sarah Palin wanted it. But Monegan states repeatedly that he did not consider himself “long for this job” if he did not fire Wooten or at minimum take additional, harsher disciplinary actions against him. And Monegan cites situations where he either discourages discussions about Wooten to avoid placing himeself and others in legal and ethical jeopardy.

Finding 3: Branchflower finds Wooten’s worker’s compensation payments in order. But Branchflower recommends that the legislature amend laws regarding the handling of employee files. Palin’s office had acquired Wooten’s worker’s compensation files and Branchflower states that this is an indication that there are insufficient controls over the confidentiality of personnel files.

Finding 4: Branchflower does not comment on the fourth finding because Palin and the attorney general did not answer requests for her email. So this is a non-issue in the report. However, a judge has ruled separately that Sarah Palin must preserve all email she sent from person accounts that involved government business. If the accounts have been deleted, then the private carriers must attempt to recover all email from these accounts. Similarly, Palin’s staff members who used private email accounts to conduct official business must preserve the correspondence in these accounts. So in other words: it’s not over yet.

Branchflower’s report was not charged with determining action to be taken against Sarah Palin. It was a limited investigation focusing on abuse of power that reported back to a bipartisan, legislative council of 12. The 12 voted unanimously to release the report to the public. In addition to four findings, Branchflower has two specific recommendations for the legislature: to strengthen confidentiality policies around the handling of government employee files and to improve the how government provides feedback to citizens regarding investigation into official complaints. Now it is up to the legislature, currently in recess, to act. Until then, it’ll be a battle to manage the results of an embarrassing ethics investigation report and the continuing hunt for missing official email all coming to you from the land of Palin.

Afterthought: Under employment laws in Alaska could Mike Wooten make a case that he was discriminated against at the workplace and sue the government of Alaska?

Get Part II here.

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