ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A key Alaska lawmaker said Thursday that uncooperative witnesses were stalling an abuse-of-power-investigation of Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, delays that could last beyond Election Day.
Alaska legislators were scheduled to meet Friday to review the investigation after the state attorney general declared that Palin and her staff would reject subpoenas seeking their testimony.
Todd Palin, husband of the Alaska governor, on Thursday announced he would refuse to testify. Palin had been subpoenaed to appear Friday in the probe. McCain-Palin spokesman Ed O'Callaghan said Todd Palin no longer believes the Legislature's investigation is legitimate.
Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski of East Anchorage said court action to force the witnesses to appear was unlikely, meaning the witnesses could hold out for months without penalty.
The investigation, which has come to be known as “Troopergate,” is looking into allegations that Palin dismissed the state public safety commissioner because he resisted pressure to fire her former brother-in-law from the Division of Alaska State Troopers.
Before she was chosen to run on the Republican presidential ticket, Palin agreed that she and members of her staff would be be interviewed by Stephen Branchflower, appointed by the Legislature to lead the investigation.
But the Department of Law later declared that the Legislature had no authority to investigate and said it would not allow Palin and her staff to be interviewed. On Tuesday, Attorney General Talis Colberg, a Palin appointee, announced that state workers would not comply with any subpoenas. Colberg then left the state on vacation.
Wielechowski, a member of the Judiciary Committee that subpoenaed Palin’s husband and 12 members of her gubernatorial staff, accused Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign of interfering in the investigation.
“It appears that the McCain campaign is co-opting our Department of Law and basically calling the shots, and I think that’s pretty clear from some of the actions we’ve seen over the past couple of days,” Wielechowski said in an interview with NBC affiliate KTUU of Anchorage.
Palin's office said in a statement that the Department of Law, which represents the governor, “remains separate and will continue to remain separate from the presidential/vice presidential campaign.”
But Newsweek magazine reported this week that the McCain campaign had dispatched Edward O’Callaghan, a former federal prosecutor, to coordinate Palin’s legal strategy in the investigation. And Palin’s public comments on the probe have come not from her or her gubernatorial staff, but from O’Callaghan and Meghan Stapleton, a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign.
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O’Callaghan said this week that Palin would not cooperate with the investigation, which he called “tainted.”
Testimony agreement was in writing
The abuse-of-power investigation has turned into a bitter struggle between legislative Democrats, on one side, and legislative Republicans and the McCain campaign on the other.
Democratic Sen. Kim Elton of Juneau, chairman of the Legislative Council, which manages legislative business when the House and the Senate are not in session, turned down calls for a special meeting of the council to reconsider the request for subpoenas.
Democratic legislators pointed to a written agreement, dated Sept. 9, between Elton and the Department of Law, stipulating that state officials would be allowed to give depositions in the case without subpoenas.
“In four paragraphs, you’ve broken a deal that was accepted by your office and received by Mr. Branchflower after the Senate Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas,” Elton wrote in a letter Wednesday to Colberg. “Further your brand new position eviscerates weeks of comments on the record by several parties, including the governor.”
Meanwhile, five Republican legislators filed suit this week to halt the investigation, alleging that the inquiry had “lost the appearance of impartiality.” The investigation is “being driven by partisan politics” and amounts to a smear campaign, the lawmakers said in a statement Tuesday.
The investigation is being overseen by Democratic Sen. Hollis French of Anchorage, who has come under fire by the McCain-Palin campaign for saying the probe could lead to Palin’s impeachment.
The lawsuit will “get some sunshine on the investigation and the questions raised around the investigation,” said Republican Rep. Wes Keller of Wasilla, where Palin began her political career as mayor.
Another plaintiff, Republican Sen. Fred Dyson of Eagle River, said the investigation “started out with quite a bit of support” but had “morphed into a process that looks like it does not have constitutional authority or statutory authority to go forward.”
The lawsuit claims that the investigation has become too political, accusing French and Elton of using the probe to carry out a political agenda. It notes that French has publicly supported the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, and that Elton has donated to Obama’s campaign.
In a statement, Elton said, “While the suit is a distraction, I’m comfortable with the notion that the court will review the substance of the suit and find the [Legislative] Council acted properly.”
Differing explanations for dismissal
The investigation stems from Palin’s dismissal in July of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.
In an interview with NBC affiliate KTUU a week later, Monegan said he thought it was likely that he had been dismissed because he resisted pressure from Palin’s staff and husband to fire state Trooper Mike Wootten, who was involved in a bitter custody battle with the governor’s sister after their divorce in 2005. Wootten remains a member of the Division of State Troopers.
When the Legislature opened its investigation last month, Palin said she welcomed the scrutiny, telling Alaskans to “hold me accountable.”
Once Palin became the Republican nominee for vice president earlier this president, however, the Department of Law began sending signals that all cooperation would end. And the McCain campaign began firing back at Monegan, accusing him of “egregious subordination” for seeking more money for his department than Palin had requested in her state budget proposal.
“Commissioner Monegan repeatedly tried to undermine the governor’s authority by working against her and the administration over the Department of Public Safety budget,” Stapelton, the McCain campaign spokeswoman, told reporters Monday.
It was at least the third different reason Palin or the McCain campaign have given for Monegan’s dismissal.
When she first fired Monegan in July, Palin thanked him for his service and said she wanted to take the department in a new direction. Then, last month, she said she fired Monegan for failing to meet recruitment goals for troopers and police departments and not doing enough to combat alcoholism in rural Alaska.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Jason Moore and Leyla Santiago of NBC affiliate KTUU in Anchorage, Alaska. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
© 2013 msnbc.com