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SERGE F. KOVALESKI
ANCHORAGE — The 2007 state fair was days away when Alaska’s public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, took another call about one of his troopers, Michael Wooten. This time, the director of Gov. Sarah Palin’s Anchorage office was on the line.
As Mr. Monegan recalls it, the aide said the governor had heard that Trooper Wooten was assigned to work the kickoff to the fair in late August. If so, Mr. Monegan should do something about it, because Ms. Palin was also planning to attend and did not want him nearby.
Somewhat bewildered, Mr. Monegan soon determined that Trooper Wooten had indeed volunteered for duty at the fairgrounds — in full costume as “Safety Bear,” the troopers’ child-friendly mascot.
Two years earlier, the trooper and the governor’s sister had been embroiled in a nasty divorce and child-custody battle that had hardened the Palin family against him.
To Mr. Monegan and several top aides, the state fair episode was yet another example of a fixation that the governor and her husband, Todd, had with Trooper Wooten and the most granular details of his life.
“I thought to myself, ‘Man, do they have a heavy-duty network and focus on this guy,’ ” Mr. Monegan said. “You’d call that an obsession.”
On July 11, Ms. Palin fired Mr. Monegan, setting off a politically charged scandal that has become vastly more so since Ms. Palin became the Republican vice-presidential nominee.
By now, the outlines of the matter have been widely reported.
Mr. Monegan believes he was ousted because he would NOT bow to pressure to dismiss Trooper Wooten.
The Alaska Legislature is investigating the firing and whether the governor abused the powers of her office to pursue a personal vendetta. Its report is due Friday.
Ms. Palin has denied that anyone told Mr. Monegan to dismiss Trooper Wooten, or that the commissioner’s ouster had anything to do with him.
But an examination of the case, based on interviews with Mr. Monegan and several top aides, indicates that, to a far greater degree than was previously known, the governor, her husband and her administration pressed the commissioner and his staff to get Trooper Wooten off the force, though without directly ordering it.
In all, the commissioner and his aides were contacted about Trooper Wooten three dozen times over 19 months by the governor, her husband and seven administration officials, interviews and documents show.
“To all of us, it was a campaign to get rid of him as a trooper and, at the very least, to smear the guy and give him a desk job somewhere,” said Kim Peterson, Mr. Monegan’s special assistant, who like several other aides spoke publicly about the matter for the first time.
Ms. Peterson, a 31-year veteran of state government who retired 10 days before Mr. Monegan’s firing, said she received about a dozen calls herself. “It was very clear that someone from the governor’s office wanted him watched,” she said.
Nor did that interest end with Mr. Monegan, the examination shows. His successor, Chuck Kopp, recalled that in an exploratory phone call and then a job interview, Ms. Palin’s aides mentioned the governor’s concerns about Trooper Wooten. None of the 280 other troopers were discussed, Mr. Kopp said.
Immediately after Mr. Monegan’s firing, Ms. Palin said her intent was to change the department’s direction. (She declined to be interviewed for this article.) She has since offered a variety of explanations for his ouster, most recently accusing him of insubordination and opposing her fiscal reforms.
As evidence, she has contended, among other things, that Mr. Monegan arranged two unauthorized lobbying trips to Washington. But according to interviews and records obtained by The New York Times, the governor’s office authorized both trips.
As for Trooper Wooten, Ms. Palin has said she and others were simply lodging legitimate complaints to the appropriate authorities about a trooper with a disciplinary record who was a danger to her family and to the public. In one instance, she said he made a death threat against her father in 2005, an accusation that the trooper has denied.
Ms. Palin initially said she welcomed an investigation into Mr. Monegan’s ouster. But she has since declined to cooperate with the bipartisan inquiry, which Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign says has been “hijacked” by Democratic lawmakers. Ms. Palin has pledged to cooperate with a separate inquiry, by the state’s Personnel Board.
Beyond the potential political consequences, the Legislature’s inquiry, depending on its outcome, could lead lawmakers to censure Ms. Palin or pass legislation making it more difficult for a governor to remove a commissioner, legislative leaders said.
Watching the Trooper
The Palin family’s dispute with Trooper Wooten surfaced long before Ms. Palin became governor.
On April 11, 2005, the day Ms. Palin’s sister, Molly McCann, filed for divorce, her father, Chuck Heath, informed the state police that a domestic-violence restraining order had been served on his son-in-law. Mr. Heath later told the state police that, although Trooper Wooten had not physically harmed Ms. McCann, he had intimidated her. Ms. McCann told the authorities that Trooper Wooten said to her that he would shoot Mr. Heath if he hired her a divorce lawyer and would “take down” Ms. Palin if she got involved.
The family also reported that Trooper Wooten, who was assigned to the wildlife investigations unit, shot a cow, or female, moose without a permit, used a Taser on his 10-year-old stepson and drank a beer at a friend’s barbecue before taking a second one for the drive home in his patrol car.
In March 2006, after an internal inquiry, Trooper Wooten received a 10-day suspension, which was eventually halved. The suspension letter mentions nothing about threats. At the time, Trooper Wooten and Ms. McCann had been divorced for about two months. But their relationship remained tumultuous, primarily over child custody disputes, said Ms. McCann’s divorce lawyer, Roberta Erwin.
Ms. McCann “wanted to know what relief was available to her” without spending the money to return to court, the lawyer said, adding, “As a close family, the Palins did their best to help her by reaching out further to the trooper hierarchy, with Todd taking the lead.”
On Jan. 4, 2007, a month into the Palin administration and his tenure as public safety commissioner, Mr. Monegan went to the governor’s Anchorage office to talk with Todd Palin, who had requested the meeting. Mr. Palin was seated at a conference table with three stacks of personnel files.
That, Mr. Monegan recalled, was the first time he heard the name Mike Wooten.
“He conveyed to me,” Mr. Monegan said, “that he and Sarah did not think the investigation into Wooten had been done well enough and that they were not happy with the punishment. Todd was clearly frustrated.”
Mr. Palin noted Trooper Wooten’s divorce case but dwelt on the moose kill, even showing photographs of the dead animal, Mr. Monegan recalled. The commissioner said he would have his staff evaluate the evidence.
A few days later, Mr. Monegan informed Mr. Palin that the issues raised at the meeting had been addressed in the suspension. The case was closed.
Mr. Palin sounded vexed and said repeatedly Trooper Wooten was getting away with a crime, Mr. Monegan said. “I hung up wondering how long I could keep my job if I tick off my boss’s husband.”
Several evenings later, Mr. Monegan’s cellphone rang. “Walt, it’s Sarah,” the governor said before echoing much of what her husband had said. Trooper Wooten, he recalls being told, was “not the kind of person we should want as a trooper.”
He told the governor, too, that there was no new evidence to pursue.
Soon after that, Mr. Palin and several aides began pressing the public safety agency to investigate another matter: whether Trooper Wooten was fraudulently collecting workers’ compensation for a back injury he said he had suffered while helping carry a body bag.
Mr. Palin’s evidence: He told Ms. Peterson, the commissioner’s assistant, that he had seen the trooper riding a snowmobile while on medical leave and that he had photographs to prove it.
When Mr. Palin called back two weeks later, Ms. Peterson said she had met with the trooper but was not authorized to discuss the conversation because it was an official state personnel matter.
The issue was eventually resolved in Trooper Wooten’s favor, after his chiropractor sent a letter saying he had approved of the trooper’s riding a snowmobile, as long as he was careful.
Mr. Palin declined to be interviewed.
But in a sworn affidavit this week for the legislative investigation, he wrote that he had hundreds of communications about the trooper “with my family, with friends, with colleagues and with just about everyone I could, including government officials.” He added, “In fact, I talked about Wooten so much over the years that my wife told me to stop talking about it with her.”
As for what he had told his wife, Mr. Palin said he often raised his concerns about “the unfairness of his remaining on the state troopers when he was obviously so unfit for the job.”
Of the dozen calls Ms. Peterson received about Trooper Wooten, she said, at least half were from Dianne Kiesel, a deputy director at the Department of Administration. The last discussion with Ms. Kiesel came after Ms. Peterson informed her that the trooper had been cleared to work full time.
“Since there was now no business reason to separate Wooten, she wanted to know what else we could do with him,” Ms. Peterson said, adding, “I could tell she was under pressure to come up with something.”
Ms. Kiesel enumerated various possibilities, like moving him to the cold-case unit or a desk job doing background checks.
Ms. Peterson, who had worked in human resources management for most of her government career, said she pointed out that those options would violate the public safety union’s contract.
At one meeting, Ms. Peterson recalled, the commissioner of administration, Annette Kreitzer, said “to keep an eye on him and that he gets no special privileges.”
In an interview, Ms. Kreitzer said she was simply calling for routine monitoring of an employee who had a disciplinary history or had not been evaluated in a while. Six other administration aides who initiated contacts with public safety officials about Trooper Wooten did not return calls or declined to comment.
As for Trooper Wooten’s planned appearance as Safety Bear, Mr. Monegan said he decided to pull him back.
In July, Ms. Palin’s acting chief of staff called Mr. Monegan to another meeting in that same room in the governor’s Anchorage office.
The aide, Michael A. Nizich, said the governor wanted him to head the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, part of the public safety department. Put another way, he was no longer commissioner.
Saying the firing had come “out of the blue,” Mr. Monegan asked how he had upset the governor. Ms. Palin, the aide said, wanted to take the agency in a new direction.
“Was it Wooten?” Mr. Monegan recalled asking.
“A new direction,” was the reply.
The Legislature’s investigation began after a local blogger, who had been a political rival of Ms. Palin, linked Mr. Monegan’s firing to, among other reasons, his refusal to dismiss Trooper Wooten.
Initially the governor said through a spokeswoman that the dismissal had nothing to do with a “personality conflict.”
Since then, her explanations have evolved, from saying that he was lagging on filling trooper vacancies and tackling alcohol-abuse problems in rural Alaska to showing an “intolerable pattern of insubordination” and a “rogue mentality” by resisting her authority and spending reforms, sometimes publicly.
Mr. Monegan’s successor, Mr. Kopp, said that when the trooper came up in his pre-employment conversations with Palin aides, “it was raised within the context of one of the things that I needed to be aware of, but there was no direction to take any job action.”
During his first week on the job, Mr. Kopp received a call from Mr. Nizich.
Trooper Wooten, in uniform, had shown up at the governor’s picnic, which is open to the public. “Is there anything you can do?” Mr. Nizich asked, explaining that the Palins were concerned about his presence.
The trooper was told to leave the area.
About a week later, Mr. Kopp resigned amid scrutiny of a 2005 sexual harassment complaint.
Mr. Wooten, who declined to be interviewed for this article, remains on the force as a patrol trooper.
Friday, October 10, 2008
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