Palin Probe Could Mean Election-Eve Trouble for McCain

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It looks like John McCain’s new running mate, Sarah Palin, could be hit with some decidedly negative PR at the worst possible time. The Alaska legislature’s investigation of whether Governor Palin improperly fired a state employee is scheduled to wrap up and release its findings just days before the November election.

The firing is at the center of a scandal that has largely remained confined to the Alaska press, but is now likely to become a national story in the wake of Palin’s selection — one that could conceivably have an impact on the presidential race.

As it happens, we’ve been tracking the story closely here at TPMmuckraker.

The scandal concerns allegations that Palin’s office improperly fired the state’s public safety commissioner because he refused to remove Palin’s ex-brother-in-law from his job as a state trooper after his bitter divorce from Palin’s sister. In addition to the legislature’s investigation, the Alaska attorney general is also looking into the matter.

Palin had at first denied that her office had a hand in pushing to have the trooper fired, but was forced to retract those denials when taped evidence emerged that a staffer in her office was involved.

If the investigation finds that her personal involvement was more extensive than she has admitted, it could create some damaging headlines for the McCain campaign at the worst possible moment.

Here’s a recap of the story:

The scandal began on July 11, when Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan was removed from his post with little explanation, a move whose abruptness quickly raised questions in Alaska. A few days later, Monegan decided to blow the whistle, and came forward to tell local media that he had been dismissed because he refused to fire trooper Mike Wooten, the ex-husband of Palin’s sister, after having been pressured to do so by aides to Palin. (Monegan’s replacement, former Kenai Chief of Police Chuck Kopp was only lasted two weeks on the job once past complaints of sexual harassment from 2005 were publicized.)

Critics pointed out that the effort to fire the trooper might have been directly related to the fact that Palin’s family had a longstanding grievances with Wooten. In an internal state police investigation in 2005, Palin herself had accused Wooten of threatening to harm her father during the breakup of her sister’s marriage. (The Palins claimed, among other things, that Wooten had used a taser on his 10-year-old stepson, and shot a moose without a permit.)

Since Monegan made his allegations, Palin has denied that she personally had a role in the effort to fire Wooten. On July 28, the state legislative council, a bipartisan panel of senators and representatives, appointed a special commission to probe the matter.

Her backtrack on her office’s role was prompted by the preliminary findings of a separate ongoing investigation into the matter by the state Attorney General, launched on August 4, that she herself put into motion. At a press conference at which Palin revealed some of that investigation’s finding, she acknowledged that in February, state troopers had taped a phone call from Frank Bailey, Palin’s director of boards and commissions, whom she appointed in August 2007, in which Bailey appeared to push for the firing of Wooten on Palin’s behalf.

In the call, Bailey appeared to say that Palin and her husband were frustrated that Wooten still had his job. “The Palins can’t figure out why nothing’s going on,” Bailey said in the recorded phone call. “Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads … ‘Why is this guy representing the department, he’s a horrible recruiting tool.’ You know? So from their perspective everybody’s protecting him.”

The investigation could be particularly poorly timed for the GOP. Steve Branchflower, a former state prosecutor who is conducting the investigation, has a three-month contract for his work, which started August 1, and will end October 31, according to Alaska State Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Hollis French (D), who is overseeing the probe. French told TPMmuckraker that he expects Branchflower to release his report in the days before the November 4th presidential election.

A spokeswoman for Palin told TPMmuckraker that the governor’s office would be fully cooperating with Branchflower.

Palin won the governor’s office in 2006 as a squeaky clean reformer. “She portrayed herself as an open-government, ethical person,” Rep. Mike Doogan, a Democratic state lawmaker, told TPMmuckraker. “You can see the obvious problem.” He added: “These things don’t help her [politically].”

And they may not help John McCain either.

(ed.note: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the state legislature was in Democratic hands and ordered the probe of Monegan’s firing. In fact, the senate is under the control of a coalition of Democratic and dissident Republican lawmakers and the House of Republicans. The state legislative council, which ordered the probe, is a bipartisan panel made up of members of both bodies.)