The abuse-of-power investigation of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was unraveling Wednesday, with most key witnesses refusing to testify, new legal maneuvering and heightened Republican pressure to delay the probe until after Election Day.
Palin initially welcomed the investigation, saying "hold me accountable," but she has increasingly opposed it since Republican presidential candidate John McCain tapped her as his vice presidential running mate.
In a reversal of position, a key Democratic lawmaker said Wednesday he may convene the committee that is conducting the investigation into whether Palin dismissed her public safety commissioner when he would not fire a state trooper involved in a bitter divorce with her sister.
Some Republican members of the committee have asked for such a meeting, to consider delaying the probe or replacing Democratic state Sen. Hollis French as its manager. The investigation's conclusions are supposed to be released by Oct. 10. The Legislative Council, made up of 10 Republicans and four Democrats, had unanimously approved launching the probe.
Lawyer will wait, but not long
A lawyer for five Alaska Republican legislators suing for a delay of the investigation known as Troopergate said he will wait — but not too long — to see what the Legislative Council, a joint bipartisan oversight panel, does before asking a judge for an injunction.
The chairman of the council, Democratic state Sen. Kim Elton, said he would poll other council members on whether to meet.
Elton had previously refused to call such a meeting before panel investigator Steven Branchflower issued his report. In a letter Wednesday to House Speaker John Harris, Elton said circumstances had changed.
He said the situation had become so politicized it was difficult to imagine it could get any worse. Elton said he used to fear that any debate without a report would be "run through the prism of presidential politics and focus on motives." But now, he added, the debate is "taking place through press conferences and lawsuits."
Elton also sent a letter to Attorney General Talis Colberg, a Republican appointed by Palin, who on Tuesday said he would refuse to allow 10 subpoenaed state employees to testify, despite assurances from Colberg's staff last week that they would testify if certain interpretations of state law were agreed upon.
Contending the deal had been broken, Elton said, "Bluntly, I feel like Charlie Brown after Lucie moved the football."
The McCain campaign said on Monday that Palin, who was not subpoenaed, was unlikely to cooperate.
Won't reveal his testimony
One of the witnesses summoned last week, former Palin legislative director John Bitney, said he testified Tuesday, but wouldn't say what he revealed. He said he spoke only of his seven-month tenure with the Palin administration that ended in July 2007.
"I spoke on what happened during the time I was employed there, and I told the truth," said Bitney.
Bitney said he felt he didn't have a choice. "If I had a publicly funded attorney telling me I didn't have to honor the subpoena, it might have been different."
The two remaining witnesses subpoenaed are Todd Palin, the governor's husband, who was traveling with his wife in Ohio and Michigan, and Murlene Wilkes, a state contractor.
Ignoring a legislative subpoena is punishable by a fine up to $500 and up to six months in jail, according to Alaska state statutes.
Harris, who two months ago supported the investigation, also now questions its impartiality and raised the possibility of delaying the findings, which would obviously be limited if virtually none of the key witnesses testified.
Delaying report could inflate debate
While appearing to waver, Elton also said delaying the report until after the election would "inflame debate about whether the council was taking a political position."
Kevin Clarkson, lawyer for the Republican lawmakers, said Wednesday that he would wait to see whether the council meets before seeking an injunction to force the issue. "But we're not going to wait too long," he said.
Meanwhile, Alaska Senate President Lyda Green, a Republican, said she does not believe the investigation will collapse or be delayed by "outside interlopers" trying to protect Palin.
"I see no reason why we need to have infighting over a previously authorized investigation that still has its original purpose," said Green, a Palin critic.
She said the attempt to block the investigation will lead to closer scrutiny of how Palin and her administration's stories have changed.
"Go back and compare all the statements of everybody in charge: 'We'll be happy to testify, we don't need any subpoenas, we don't have anything to hide.' Now the implication is, 'We have something to hide,'" Green said.