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Palin seeks new inquiry into Troopergate

John McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has gone on the offensive trying to blunt negative fallout from the so-called Troopergate investigation
Image: Sarah Palin
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is embroiled in a controversy over whether she improperly fired the state public safety commissioner.Stephan Savoia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

John McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has asked the state's personnel board to review allegations that she improperly ordered the firing of the former public safety commissioner.

The move, which her office announced Tuesday, aims to blunt a probe already ordered by the Legislature. Palin is accused of firing Walt Monegan for failing to dismiss a trooper who went through a messy divorce with Palin's sister before she was governor.

In 2005, before Palin ran for office, the Palin family accused trooper Mike Wooten of drinking beer in his patrol car, illegally shooting a moose and firing a Taser at his 11-year-old stepson. Palin and her husband, Todd, also claimed Wooten threatened to kill Sarah Palin's father. Wooten, who hasn't returned numerous phone calls left by The Associated Press this week, was suspended over the allegations for five days in 2006 but still has his job.

In July, the legislature launched a $100,000 investigation into whether Palin abused her power in firing Monegan. The Alaska attorney general's office hired Anchorage attorney Thomas Van Flein to represent Palin and members of her staff in this investigation.

'Welcome a fair inquiry'
The new filing was accompanied by a 13-page accounting of Palin's version of the events, denying any abuse of power. Palin's attorney has long contended that the investigation belonged in the personnel system and not the legislature.

"We fully welcome a fair inquiry into these allegations, and believe that the Personnel Board is statutorily mandated to oversee these proceedings," Stephen Branchflower, the legislature's attorney, said in a letter Monday.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the documents filed by Palin contained allegations that the trooper had continued to harass her and her family as recently as this summer.

Neither Van Flein nor state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat heading the state probe, could be immediately reached for comment Tuesday. But earlier, in a letter to Van Flein, French said the Personnel Board oversees complaints brought against the governor under the state's ethics laws.

"While the Board may be engaged now in investigating an ethics complaint, that process is held confidential until the Board makes a finding of probable cause," he wrote.

Van Flein is representing Palin both personally and in her official capacity as governor.

Van Flein, who also previously represented the Palin family in another matter, said there was no conflict of interest in the dual representation arrangement. Van Flein is permitted to bill the state up to $95,000 for work in the current case.

Van Flein saw no problem with the arrangement. "Our representation is dual but the billing is not," Van Flein said before Palin's legal filing was disclosed Tuesday evening. "Matters involving a personal issue will not — and have not — been billed in the government contract."

Van Flein said that prior to his hiring by the state's Department of Law on Aug. 21, "We represented the governor and her husband privately." He declined to provide further details on that matter.

The attorney said he doesn't know whether Palin suggested to the Alaska Department of Law that it hire him and said he bid for the work. Van Flein and another lawyer in his firm are billing the state $185 an hour under the contract.

More than just billing headaches
Lawyers aren't prohibited from such dual representation, but it could cause more than just billing headaches.

In representing the governor's office, Van Flein's allegiance is to the office itself, not to Palin personally. Depending on where the investigation leads, that could put him in a difficult situation if Palin's interests and the interests of the public office diverge.

David Jones, an assistant state attorney in Alaska, said the law department conducted a limited competitive solicitation that adhered to state law. Jones said the department contacted four lawyers and received two responses, from Van Flein and another attorney who proposed an hourly rate $142 more than Van Flein's firm.

A senior McCain adviser, Tucker Eskew, said the law firm's hiring was part of a "weeks-old effort to provide this governor defense in a series of outlandish politically motivated charges" that were unrelated to the presidential campaign.

The investigation will be conducted by a state-hired investigator working for a Republican-dominated legislative committee.