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Gov. Sarah Palin Cleared In “Tasergate”

New Report by State Personnel Board Investigator

Ah, the death of a talking point…we have news from Alaska that the investigator for the State Personnel Board has issued a report – contrary to the findings of the Legislature’s independent investigator – and concluded that Gov. Palin did not abuse her authority in the case of State Trooper Michael Wooten, the controversy over “Tasergate” or, if you prefer, “Troopergate.”

Let’s do a Q&A on the 263-page Branchflower report, which I read from cover to cover, and on the 125-page Petumenos report, which I have only yet had the chance to skim. I may return to this after the election when we have more time to walk through the evidence (win or lose tomorrow, Gov. Palin will continue to be an important figure in national politics).

First, the Branchflower report:

(1) A report was issued by one man, Stephen Branchflower.

(2) Branchflower was handpicked, and his investigation directed, by Hollis French – an Obama supporter who has a personal axe to grind in the facts under investigation. Branchflower, French and Walt Monegan, the chief witness in the case, all appear to go way back together in Alaska law enforcement circles.

(3) The only wrongdoing Branchflower could find was under a general statute that says public officials may not engage in an “effort to benefit a personal … interest through official action” – he did not find a violation of any specific statute, rule or regulation. To conclude that Gov. Palin’s actions were in her personal interest rather than the best interests of the Alaskan people and their government, you must believe that her actions were actually wrong.

(4) In order to find that Gov. Palin’s actions were actually wrong, Democrats must be willing to argue that an irresponsible and abusive state trooper who made death threats against Gov. Palin’s father and menaced her sister in her hearing and used a Taser on a 10-year-old is a good person to have wielding armed authority on behalf of the State of Alaska. Because otherwise they are making a technical legal argument that she did the right thing in the wrong way – yet they don’t have any technical violation to hang their hats on.

By contrast, the Personnel Board investigator, Timothy Petumenos, found no impropriety and concluded, regarding Branchflower’s report:

Independent Counsel has concluded the wrong statute was used as a basis for the conclusions contained in the Branchflower Report, the Branchflower report misconstrued the available evidence and did not consider or obtain all of the material evidence that is required to properly reach findings.

Read on.Q: What is this story about?

A: In broad outlines, two things. One, the Palin family had a long-running dispute – predating Sarah Palin’s campaign for Governor – with Alaska State Trooper Michael Wooten, the ex-husband of Gov. Palin’s younger sister Molly. Trooper Wooten remains employed as a State Trooper. Two, in July 2008, Gov. Palin fired Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, a Cabinet-level employee whose job includes supervising the State Troopers. (Technically, Monegan was demoted, not fired, but the point is that he was removed from his job, and chose to decline the reassignment). The issues are whether Gov. Palin acted improperly in seeking to get Trooper Wooten fired or in firing Monegan.

Q: So, what did the Legislature find?

A. Nothing. As Beldar explains, the Legislature’s not in session, so it hasn’t done anything, and neither has the 12-member bipartisan Legislative Council under whose authority the investigation was conducted. (As the Anchorage Daily News noted when the Council voted to release his report: “His report was released Friday by a 12-0 vote of the Legislative Council, with eight Republicans and four Democrats voting. Some members of the panel said they didn’t agree with Branchflower’s findings, however.” This despite the axes to grind against Palin by both Republican and Democratic members of the Council) The investigative report by Stephen Branchflower, a retired prosecutor living in South Carolina, is entitled to no more and no less deference than previous determinations by Ken Starr, Robert Ray, Lawrence Walsh, Donald Smaltz, George Mitchell, and other investigative one-man bands. And to the extent that Branchflower shows his own work, you or I are perfectly qualified to second-guess his opinions – and so is Petumenos, the Personnel Board investigator.

Moreover, Branchflower’s report is inherently one-sided, as he didn’t have access to Gov. Palin, her husband, her sister or a number of other people supportive of the Governor. Obviously, that’s due to the battles over the scope and authority of Branchflower’s investigation, which in turn were driven by the McCain-Palin camp’s justifiable concerns about the fairness of the investigation. Branchflower refused to reference or incorporate the written response by Gov. Palin to the Personnel Board’s investigation or the sworn statements of Todd Palin and other witnesses who provided statements late in the game. He also does not appear to have interviewed Trooper Wooten, receiving only a written statement from him. (See Branchflower Report (“BR”) 5, 7). But he did find time to interview Democratic Senate candidate Mark Begich, who was actually the first person he interviewed. BR 2. As such, his report should be considered only as one part of the story. Indeed, if you look at his crucial conclusion on page 67 of the report regarding the Palins’ concerns about Wooten, Branchflower draws inferences against the Palins while admitting that “in the absence of an interview with either Governor Palin or Todd Palin, the specific answers to [his] questions [about the genuineness of their motives] are left unanswered,” then goes about construing the remaining evidence against them on what, as I note below, is a fairly slender foundation. Gov. Palin has, of course, subsequently submitted to an interview that will be part of the conclusions to be drawn after the election by both the Legislature and the Personnel Board, in both of which Gov. Palin obviously has more faith than in Branchflower.

I should also note here that the meandering and repetitive 263-page report is only the public volume. There is also a confidential portion the public can’t examine. We can only evaluate Branchflower’s public work to see if it supports his conclusions. As discussed below, the public report simply does not purport to address many of the important issues.

Q: Who is Stephen Branchflower?

Branchflower has a longstanding working relationship with Monegan dating to Branchflower’s time as a prosecutor in Anchorage, where Monegan was Chief of Police (as does Branchflower’s wife). Likewise, Democratic State Senator Hollis French is “a former prosecutor and colleague of Branchflower”. That’s not all that surprising (it’s a small law enforcement community), but obviously Branchflower was likely to be predisposed favorably towards Monegan and French, both of whom are aligned against Palin here.

Q: Who is Hollis French and what does he have to do with all this?

Branchflower was handpicked as the investigator by Hollis French (over the objections of the Alaska Attorney General, a Palin ally, who wanted a retired judge or other more objective figure), and French effectively controlled the investigation including the witness list. (Alaska TV station KTVA describes French as “responsible for managing the case”; the Anchorage Daily News (ADN) calls him the investigation’s “project director.” ). Here is the basis for concluding that French was running Branchflower’s witness list:

Rep. David Guttenberg (D.) asked Branchflower why he was requesting subpoenas for only those people attending the meeting and not Tibbles himself. Branchflower said he would “have to defer that question to Mr. French.” “I put the list together with, talking to Mr. French,” Branchflower added. Sen. Gene Therriault (R.) told Branchflower, “I don’t understand why you would have to defer that question to Sen. French. If it’s your list you’re in complete control of the list, then why can’t you answer the question?”Branchflower had no explanation. He only offered, “I’m not sure why his name was removed. My initial request was to have him on the list.” At that point, French interjected. “It appeared to me there wasn’t the political will to subpoena Tibbles.”

The Branchflower report was originally designed to be released five days before the election on October 31 but was moved back to October 10 after complaints about the timing. *

Hollis French isn’t just a Democratic State Senator on the Legislative Council; as I note below, his de facto alliance with Monegan in the events that led up to Monegan’s firing means that he’s effectively involved in the facts under investigation, and really ethically should have recused himself from this entire process. But French is also a prominent Obama supporter whose testimonials are featured on Obama’s own website *, and he had a job to do: provide what he promised would be an “October Surprise” for the McCain-Palin campaign. Speaking to Newsweek in early September, “French … acknowledged that some of his public comments about the ongoing probe may have been out of bounds. ‘I said some things I shouldn’t have said’”…

Palin questioned French’s impartiality from the time that “French was quoted in The Wall Street Journal [in early August] saying the governor could be impeached as a result of the [Branchflower] probe.” (French argued that he’d been misquoted). * Here’s how Beldar describes French’s conduct:

Democratic state senator Hollis French, who’s managing the investigation, is already jumping to conclusions, muttering about “impeachment” to the press, and yet simultaneously he’s short-circuited any kind of basic due process by refusing to share with Gov. Palin or her counsel the historical evidence (e.g., emails) that the Legislature’s investigator is collecting to use against her! At least one Alaska legislator has already called for French to step down, citing his obvious bias. French has already boasted to ABC News of his desire to “release his final report by Oct. 31, four days before the November election,” as an “October surprise” that’s “likely to be damaging to the Governor’s administration.”

John McCormack notes:

Hollis French is now managing the investigation into Monegan’s firing, and French has already made partisan remarks about it to the press, saying to the Washington Post: “It undercuts one of the points they are making that [Palin] is an ethical reformer.”

Amanda Carpenter notes that some press reports support the notion that Wooten’s union, the PSEA (which as discussed below was at loggerheads with Palin in the dispute that precipitated Monegan’s demotion) is also coordinating with the Obama campaign:

The same week PSEA filed their complaint, CNN reported that Obama campaign officials had been contacting Wooten’s union, although Obama spokesmen have vehemently refuted CNN’s report as well as one from the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund that said more than 30 lawyers, investigators and opposition researches had been deployed to Alaska to dig up dirt on Palin.

As for Monegan’s credibility, certainly Branchflower presents him as a respectable law enforcement figure, and his testimony seems reasonable on its face. That said, he obviously has an axe to grind against Palin. And Monegan himself was once subject to a domestic violence order of protection for making death threats against his now-ex-wife, so he may not be the most unbiased observer of Wooten’s situation.

Q: Who is Timothy Petumenos?

I’m not, as yet, as familiar with Petumenos, though I am sure we will learn more about him and the Personnel Board. I assume, given that Gov. Palin submitted her own request for a Personnel Board investigation, that she felt it would be a more sympathetic venue.

UPDATE: Powerline notes that Petumenos is a Democrat who donated money to Palin’s opponent, Tony Knowles, in the 2006 election.

Q: OK, that’s all well and good, but let’s discuss the merits here. Did Gov. Palin act improperly or illegally in firing Walt Monegan?

Branchflower says she had every right to fire Monegan – he exonerates the Governor on the totally obvious ground that she was entitled to fire such a high-ranking officer in her cabinet for any reason or no reason; Monegan serves at the pleasure of the Governor. (See Finding Number Two at p. 69-71 of Branchflower’s report). As discussed below, Branchflower’s only basis for complaining about Monegan’s firing is that he believes that it was partly motivated or precipitated by the dispute over Wooten. In other words, all roads lead back to Wooten.

The evidence shows fairly overwhelmingly that Gov. Palin had legitimate policy-related reasons to want Monegan gone; in her written response to the investigation (“PR”), Gov. Palin refers to these as “good-faith disagreements about appropriate government policy.” PR 4(paragraph 16). Monegan was insubordinate; he broke openly with Palin over her efforts to cut his agency’s budget, siding instead with Hollis French, of all people, in a budget dispute tied to Palin’s Administration’s negotiations with the Troopers’ union, the PSEA, whose contract was due up in June 2008:

* 12/9/07: Monegan holds a press conference with Hollis French to push his own budget plan.

* 1/29/08: Palin’s staffers have to rework their procedures to keep Monegan from bypassing normal channels for budget requests.

* February 2008: Monegan publicly releases a letter he wrote to Palin supporting a project she vetoed.

* June 26, 2008: Monegan bypassed the governor’s office entirely and contacted Alaska’s Congressional delegation to gain funding for a project.

Allahpundit has explained the latter, an example of Palin in early July 2008 trying to put her foot down to stop a lobbying trip to DC planned by Monegan and Monegan disobeying her:

In a July 7 e-mail, John Katz, the governor’s special counsel, noted two problems with the trip: The governor hadn’t agreed the money should be sought, and the request was “out of sequence with our other appropriations requests and could put a strain on the evolving relationship between the Governor and Sen. (Ted) Stevens.”

Four days later, Monegan was fired. He said he had kept others in the administration fully apprised of his plans to go to Washington.

Consider how even Andrew Halcro – a 2006 Gubernatorial candidate defeated by Palin and now the blogger who started this whole kerfuffle, and thus a person most ill-disposed towards Sarah Palin – described the budget battle:

the Palin administration wanted Monegan to go in another direction. They wanted him to cut corners on a budget that had already fallen behind over the last decade. Under Former Governor Murkwoski there was significant investment made to try and catch up with growing costs but Palin’s budgets have again started to starve the agency.

To make matters worse, the change to the state’s retirement benefit program adopted by the legislature in 2004 has had a negative effect on the departments ability to recruit new Troopers.

+++

Monegan and his department were getting too far out in front of Palin, acting in ways that were independent and contrary to the governor’s wishes. Palin needed to replace Monegan with someone who would be seen but not heard while doing the governor’s bidding.

+++

Walt Monegan was fired because he fought too hard. Governor Palin fired Monegan because she understood too little and wanted a puppet as commissioner.

Regardless of whose side you took in the budget battle, the fact is, taking public sides against your boss’ budget decisions is very close to the top of the list of ways to get yourself fired in politics. There’s simply no way to gloss over the differences of policy and politics that led Monegan to get demoted. Branchflower really had no choice but to find that demoting Monegan was a legitimate exercise of Gov. Palin’s authority.

Petumenos concurs that there was no impropriety in demoting/reassigning Monegan.

Q: So, if Gov. Palin had legitimate reasons to fire Monegan, what on earth is Branchflower complaining about?

It’s all about Wooten.

Branchflower found that Gov. Palin “abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act,” which provides:

The legislature reaffirms that each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust.

It’s undisputed that Gov. Palin did nothing to act in her financial interest, so the question is whether she acted to benefit a “personal” interest. As noted above, it’s undisputed as well that she had other legitimate reasons to remove Monegan, and no personal interest in doing so.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the strongest case against Gov. Palin is true: that she pressured Monegan to fire Wooten, and that the degree of the pressure to fire Wooten is illustrated by the removal of Monegan from his position when he wouldn’t do it himself. (This involves multiple leaps over gaps in Branchflower’s evidence, but we’ll go there for now for the sake of argument. I’m also glossing here over Branchflower’s confused legal definition of what state of mind is required to “knowingly” violate the Ethics Act, although I would argue as well that as a legal matter, Branchflower really has no basis to argue that Gov. Palin “kn[e]w that … her conduct [was] in violation of the Act,” BR 51).

Branchflower’s theory is that firing Wooten would be a “personal benefit” to Gov. Palin because it would benefit Gov. Palin’s father and sister and that she wanted “to get Trooper Wooten fired for personal family reasons.” BR 65, 67. Now, as a legal matter, Palin’s lawyers note that there’s pretty much no precedent in Alaska law for finding a violation of this provision of the Ethics Act in the absence of any financial interest. And of course in a material sense, as noted below, it’s hard to see how getting him fired would benefit his ex-wife.

That said, obviously it’s not hard to see why in the aftermath of a bitter divorce, and with child custody issues still open to revisiting, one could see a benefit to Gov. Palin’s sister to ruining Wooten. Branchflower has no evidence of this, as a result of which it’s improper for him as an officer of the State to jump to that conclusion, but leave that aside for now. The fact is, “personal interest” is at best vaguely defined (Beldar suggests as an example that it could possibly include such things as pardoning someone who could incriminate a governor).

Here is Palin’s lawyers’ argument in response:

To the extent the Governor is alleged to have sought a non-financial personal benefit from an attempt to have Mr. Wooten dismissed, that benefit would have been a benefit shared generally with the public — namely, the benefit of a trooper force free from rogue officers who have been found guilty of acts of violence and recklessness against the public. The Ethics Act specifically permits state officials to act in such circumstances, and thus even if the allegations were true — which they assuredly are not — there would be not probable cause to pursue the claim in this matter.

Beldar has his own take on what a “personal interest” is (he notes that “Branchflower reads the Ethics Act to prohibit any governmental action or decision made for justifiable reasons benefiting the State if that action or decision might also make a public official happy for any other reason,” which I suppose might be a useful rule where you have a clear-cut benefit like a financial interest), as does Paul Mirengoff.

Petumenos, at pp. 17-19, essentially agrees with the Governor’s lawyers, and specifically notes that it would be problematic to construe the statute as broadly as Branchflower does – apparently without precedent in Alaska law – in a way that would act as a positive constraint against a Governor acting in the best interests of the public on a matter in which she has no concrete interest similar to a financial interest.

My own view is much the same: acting to get rid of a trooper who is a hazard both to the public and to the State Treasury (through the risk of lawsuits against the State if he misbehaved) is not just a defensible use of the Governor’s authority, it’s her job. It’s illogical to find a significant ethical violation – as required by the precedents cited by Gov. Palin’s attorneys – if the Governor reasonably and sincerely believed she was acting in the best interests of the people she was elected to represent. The Governor is, after all, the state’s Chief Executive, with sole and really irreplaceable responsibility for public safety and the public fisc. If she had information causing her to believe that one of her subordinates represented a threat to public safety, there’s really no good reason why she should have been precluded from doing everything in her power to remove that threat (this is especially true in a small state where people are more apt to know each other).

I just don’t see how a legal prohibition on Gov. Palin acting for a “personal interest” – where she had no financial interest at stake – could be triggered if she reasonably and sincerely believed she was acting in the best interests of the public in the case of a trooper who was a menace to society. The fact is that if it is shown that she reasonably and sincerely thought that Wooten should not be a trooper, the benefit of removing him from that position would not be significantly greater for her – as the sister of his estranged and presumably embittered ex-wife – than for the average citizen. There should only be any sort of ethics complaint here if there’s a reasonable basis for finding that her concerns about Wooten were pretextual and not supported by a reasonable and sincere desire to protect the public interest, in which case the personal aminus becomes a more significant element in the decisional matrix. As I discuss below, Branchflower does not come close to meeting that standard.

Q: Did Gov. Palin pressure Monegan to take action against Trooper Wooten?

Branchflower dedicates the bulk of his investigation to this question. As to Gov. Palin personally, the evidence suggests that while she repeatedly made clear to Monegan her grievances with Wooten as a trooper, she (1) never directly or indirectly instructed Monegan to fire Wooten and (2) took to heart Wooten’s admonition early in her term that for legal reasons she should not talk directly to Monegan about Wooten.

On the first point, Monegan has been unequivocal:

“For the record, no one ever said fire Wooten. Not the governor. Not Todd. Not any of the other staff,” Monegan said … “What they said directly was more along the lines of ‘This isn’t a person that we would want to be representing our state troopers.’”

Now, Monegan admits that he was never asked to fire Wooten. He also admits that after he advised Gov. Palin early in her term (February 2007) that it would be unwise to discuss the employment of a particular trooper with him, she did not raise the issue again.

That said, and for today at least I’m skimming over some of the details here that were covered exhaustively in the reports, basically the investigators’ conclusions turned on Todd Palin and some of the Governor’s key staffers constantly pestering Monegan about what a bad trooper Wooten was.

The argument as to why this was improper is, mainly, that Monegan really couldn’t fire Wooten – apparently, under the collective bargaining agreement (and possibly state law as well, I’m writing quickly here and can’t recall offhand) since he’d already been investigated and given a slap on the wrist, there was no way to reopen his case.

Of course, (1) the Governor can change the law and (2) the collective bargaining agreement was open to renegotiation – it expired in June 2008. That’s not to say in either case that Gov. Palin had imperial power to just rewrite the civil-service laws, but it’s worth remembering that the rules here were not cast in stone forevermore, and in fact the example of how Wooten got away with the things he had done seems to have stuck in Gov. Palin’s craw as an example of why she should be reconsidering the supervision of the troopers.

Q: Did Gov. Palin reasonably and sincerely believe that Trooper Wooten should not be a State Trooper?

I believe the evidence shows rather compellingly that Trooper Wooten’s conduct, and specifically the conduct that the Palins complained about, demonstrates his unfitness to serve as a State Trooper and that his continuance in that position presented a risk to public safety as well as a liability risk to the State of Alaska. The record clearly supports that both Gov. Palin and her husband believed this to be true. Thus, to challenge the Palin family’s complaints about Trooper Wooten, her critics must argue that Trooper Wooten is a good person to have exercising armed authority on behalf of the State, or, alternatively, that the Governor should not have done anything about him even though he was a menace.

And it’s not just limited to dangers to the public. The evidence is also quite clear that Gov. Palin was concerned, repeatedly, about the possibility that Wooten could do something to a member of the Alaskan public that would open the State to the threat of a big-dollar lawsuit, a concern apparently triggered by public reports about other troopers whose conduct led to such judgments during the time period in question. If you know anything about litigation, you know that if the State continued to employ Wooten after the Governor herself knew that he was a ‘ticking time bomb,’ that would present elevated risks of a massive damages award in the hands of a skilled trial lawyer. New Governors are not required to check at the door the things they have learned in life outside government; there would be no way in such a lawsuit to keep it from coming out that the state’s chief executive knew of an extensive history of Wooten’s misconduct that rendered him unfit to carry a gun and a badge.

Consider Monegan’s comments to the Washington Post, which support the conclusion that Gov. Palin was concerned that Wooten was a symptom of larger problems with the State Troopers that could lead to harm to the State:

Monegan said Palin mostly backed off, but kept raising the matter indirectly through e-mails. In the fall of 2007, Monegan said he alerted her to a bad jury verdict against a trooper in rural Alaska, and she replied by mentioning Wooten, but not by name.

“She said troopers like this one and my former brother-in-law, or that trooper I used to be related to, are the things that make people not trust troopers,” Monegan told The Post yesterday.

Mike Gravel, who surely has no particular motive to side with Palin, thinks this is plenty of reason to want the man off the force:

This trooper should have been fired … if the unions didn’t want to step up to the plate. …

This is a guy that shouldn’t be wearing a badge, not when he threatens people’s lives. …

Did they have to wait ’til he killed somebody before they got rid of him?

Certainly Todd Palin is utterly unapologetic about the hazard posed by Trooper Wooten:

“We had a lot of conversations about a guy who threatened my family and verbally assaulted my daughter. We talked about my concerns. We talked about Wooten possibly pulling over one of my kids to frame them, like throwing a bag of dope in the back seat just to frame a Palin,” he said of his conversations with one Palin aide.

+++

“I make no apologies for wanting to protect my family and wanting to publicize the injustice of a violent trooper keeping his badge and abusing the worker compensation system. The real investigation that needs to be conducted for the best interests of the public at large is the Department of Public Safety’s unwillingness to discipline its own.”

*

As I said, I have not had time to synthesize in a post all of the evidence here. Let’s note the big one. In February 2005, as the marital dispute between Mike Wooten and Molly McCann was escalating, Sarah Palin (then a private citizen) was called by her sister to listen in on a big argument between Wooten and his wife (Palin noted in an August 2005 email that this particular altercation was precipitated by the revelation that Wooten had been cheating on his wife). Fearing for her safety in a heated argument, Molly called her older sister Sarah “in case I do need help,” and Sarah stayed on one open line and had her son Track listen in with her. You can read the State Trooper investigator’s interview 2 months later with Sarah Palin here (I’d block-quote at greater length but I can’t copy and paste from these PDFs) – what they heard was chilling, and I wonder how Democrats can read her witness statement and take sides with Wooten as he storms in yelling at his wife in a rage (Palin notes that he’s a very big guy, towering over his wife, and was likely wearing his service revolver) and tells her, “If your dad helps you through this divorce, if he gets an attorney he’s gonna, he’s gonna eat an F’n lead bullet. I’m gonna shoot him.” and “I know people in all the right places, in high places. I know judges. I know attorney’s [sic]. I have relationships with these guys. You guys are all going down.” Palin got concerned enough that she had Track call Molly’s neighbor, and Palin drove over to their house herself, eventually leaving when Wooten seemed to have calmed down. Palin noted in an August email the history of Wooten’s “physical abuse of his wife.” On April 11, 2005, Molly obtained a Domestic Violence Protective Order against Wooten.

Just for one example out of many, this, which also comes from an April 2005 report originating with Molly and Chuck Heath, should give a flavor of Wooten’s menace:

Page also relayed that Inv. Wooten may be taking some kind of steroid supplement and having problems with alcohol and relayed a story where (nv. Wooten drove while intoxicated from the Mug Shot Saloon. Page said he had encouraged Molly and Heath to report this behavior to the troopers but they are scared. Page has personally observed Jnv.Wooten’s behavior change over the last few months and described him as “disconnected.”

+++

Mike has also told Molly that he is taking a testosterone supplement that is illegal. He gets the substance from a friend he weight lifts with whose name she does not know. She cannot recall the name of the substance, just that it has a three letter initial name like MTD, and comes in small, blue pills.

(That’s aside from the drinking and driving angle in that particular report).

So far as I can tell, nobody but Wooten himself seriously disputes that Wooten made the threats in question. Wooten “told troopers he never said anything like that about his father-in-law,” but the state troopers’ investigation did not find in his favor on the facts, concluding only as follows:

Molly McCann, Sarah Palin and Track Palin allege that on February 17, 2005, Investigator Wooten made a comment to Molly McCann that he would shoot her father if he hired a Iawyer for her. McCann advised that Investigator Wooten made this comment to her, and that Sarah and Track Palin who were listening over an open telephone line overheard it. Investigator Wooten was questioned about the comment and denied ever making the statement. Although McCann, Sarah Palin and Track Palin all recalled hearing the statement, a statement ‘or implied threat to a non-present third party is not a crime. Although McCann and Sarah Palin felt that their father’s life was in danger by the statement, neither mentioned the threat to their father for several weeks. Nevertheless, a statement of this sort by a trooper reflects badly on [Alaska State Troopers].

Newsweek cites subsequent comments by the divorce court judge asking Palin and her family to cool the jets on their complaints about Wooten and eventually dissolving the domestic violence protective order, but those are steps, as Beldar notes, that are fairly common for a divorce court looking to put the family dispute behind everyone, and they don’t really address whether the death threats are consistent with believing that Wooten is a menace to public order as a State Trooper. Certainly the Washington Post’s characterization of his remarks suggests a concern for something other than getting to the bottom of whether Wooten was a bad Trooper:

Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock reviewed the complaints filed by Palin and her family. At trial on Oct. 27, 2005, the judge expressed puzzlement about why the family was trying to get Wooten fired, since depriving the trooper of a job would harm his ability to pay family support to Palin’s sister.

“It appears for the world that Ms. McCann and her family have decided to take off for the guy’s livelihood — that the bitterness of whatever who did what to whom has overridden good judgment,” Suddock said in an audio recording from the trial on TV station KTUU’s Web site. “Aesop told us not to slay the goose who lays the golden egg. For whatever reason, people are trying to slay the goose here and it tends to diminish his earning capacity.”

(See also BR 53-54). Branchflower mainly concluded that concerns over Wooten must be pretextual because the Palins dispensed with much of their security detail…but that’s a logical non-sequitur; you could believe that Wooten is a dangerous guy with a hair-trigger temper who has no business in law enforcement and still not think he would hunt down and kill the governor of the state. At the same time, Branchflower’s report makes clear that Gov. Palin expressed not wanting to have Wooten at events she was attending.

There’s a whole bunch of other problems with Wooten I lack the time here to fully explore (including a number of findings against him by a state police internal investigation) – some minor, some more serious, but collectively giving the impression of a guy who drank too much, was very confident that he was above the law, and had little respect for rules – a bad combination indeed. The most notorious is the time he Tasered his 10-year-old stepson (he “offered” to do the same to Palin’s daughter Bristol, who witnessed this lunacy). Wooten himself – who has been married four times – tries to minimize the Taser incident but nonetheless admits it was terrible judgment:

He said that he was a new Taser instructor, and his stepson was asking him about the equipment. “I didn’t shoot him with live, you know, actual live cartridge,” Wooten said.

Instead, he said, he hooked his stepson up to a training aid “with little clips. And, you know, the Taser was activated for less than a second, which would be less than what you would get if you touched an electric fence. … It was as safe as I could possibly make it.”

He said his stepson was on the living room floor surrounded by pillows, that he “was bragging about it,” and that the family laughed about it.

Asked whether it was a dumb decision, Wooten told CNN, “absolutely.”

This is a guy the state was supposed to trust with deadly force?

Q: What did Petumenos find?

Here’s his summary of findings:

1. There is no probable cause to believe that Governor Palin violated the Alaska Executive Ethics Act by making the decision to dismiss Department of Public Safety Commissioner Monegan and offering him instead the position of Director of the Alaska Beverage Control Board.

2. There is no probable cause to believe that Governor Palin violated the Alaska Executive Ethics Act in any other respect in connection with the employment of Alaska State Trooper Michael Wooten.

3. There is no basis upon which to refer the conduct of Governor Palin to any law enforcement agency in connection with this matter because Governor Palin did not commit the offenses of Interference with Official Proceedings or Official Misconduct.

4. There is no probable cause to believe that any other official of state government violated any substantive provision of the Ethics Act.

5. There is no legal basis or jurisdiction for conducting a “Due Process Hearing to Address Reputational Harm” as requested by former Commissioner Walter Monegan.

6. The Amended Complaint by the PSEA should be dismissed.

7. Independent Counsel recommends that the appropriate agency of State government address the issue of the private use of e-mails for government work and revisit the record retention policies of the Governor’s Office.

These findings differ from those of the Branchflower Report because Independent Counsel has concluded the wrong statute was used as a basis for the conclusions contained in the Branchflower Report, the Branchflower report misconstrued the available evidence and did not consider or obtain all of the material evidence that is required to properly reach findings.

We can pick over as we go the debates about the details here, but the argument that there’s somehow a formal and uncontested finding that Gov. Palin acted unethically is now unsupportable.

MORE READING: The McCain-Palin campaign’s August 30, 2008 press release makes many of the same points addressed above. * (You can get the graphic version here). And H/T Flopping Aces for some of the links in this post.

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