Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is maneuvering to stop an investigation into an alleged abuse of power, in part, by claiming that she has an unlimited right to pry into the personnel records of all state employees, including the state trooper who divorced her sister.
Palin’s new position was summed up in a Sept. 9 letter from Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg to the state legislature, which has authorized an independent counsel probe into whether Palin and her staff illegally accessed confidential personnel records of her ex-brother-in-law, state trooper Mike Wooten.
The probe also focuses on Palin’s firing of state Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan in July after he refused to fire Wooten.
Colberg’s argument is that Palin can access confidential files of any state employee she chooses and thus the allegation that she got unauthorized access to Wooten’s personnel records – by whatever means – is moot.
“It does not violate the State Personnel Act for Department of Administration Staff to provide confidential personnel information to the governor or her staff — or for the governor or her staff to receive that information — in the course and scope of their official duties,” the attorney general wrote.
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“The governor or her staff may, in the course and scope of their official duties, review a confidential personnel file to ensure, for example, that an employee is adequately supervised, appropriately evaluated, and appropriately disciplined. In appropriate cases, the governor may also direct the termination of a state employee.”
This legal analysis appears to be an attempt to provide Palin and her staffers with legal cover for allegedly disseminating confidential information about Wooten in a campaign to get him fired.
However, John Cyr, executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association which represents Alaska State Troopers, disputes the notion of that Palin can have unlimited access to all state employee records.
“It is illegal to access employee medical and personnel files unless it’s on a ‘need to know basis,’” Cyr said about Palin's assertion of this unlimited authority. “This is outrageous.”
Palin’s new defense line became necessary when it turned out that an earlier claim that Wooten’s personnel file was public record through his divorce/custody case with Palin’s sister turned out to be untrue.
Palin, her private attorney Thomas Van Flein and McCain campaign officials had said Wooten released his confidential medical and employment records as part of those proceedings. Palin’s office even posted Wooten’s Feb. 7 agreement to release those records as part of the case discovery.
Learned Derogatory Information
Palin and her husband, Todd, presumably learned some derogatory information about Wooten from her sister, Molly McCann, who received the information via the discovery process.
However, the Palins appear to have been mistaken that Wooten’s personnel record had been released into the official court record where it would become public information.
Wooten’s personnel file was never introduced as evidence in the divorce/custody case because he entered into a settlement agreement with his ex-wife over custody of their young children, according to Palin’s sister’s attorney, Roberta Erwin.
“It doesn’t become part of the court record unless you file exhibits; we never got that far,” Erwin said in an interview.
The clerk at the courthouse in Anchorage confirmed that the contents of the Wooten/McCann divorce/custody case contain none of Wooten’s personnel, medical or financial records.
However, three weeks after Wooten signed that Feb. 7 release form for the discovery – even though the information was not in the public record – Palin’s director of state boards and commissions, Frank Bailey, telephoned police Lt. Rodney Dial and wanted to know why Wooten hadn’t been fired.
Bailey outlined disparaging details about Wooten’s finances and personal behavior that appear to have come from his personnel file. Bailey said he had gotten the information from Todd Palin, the governor’s husband.
Gov. Palin's handling of the Wooten matter and her firing of Public Safety Commissioner Monegan are under investigation by independent counsel Steve Branchflower, who was appointed by Alaska’s Legislative Council.
While the probe centers on whether Palin abused her power in firing Monegan in July, the investigation also involves claims that the governor’s office peeked at Wooten’s personnel records illegally.
In July, Gov. Palin vowed to cooperate with the probe. However, since her surprise selection as the Republican vice presidential nominee, she – as well as her husband and senior staff aides – have balked at giving depositions.
On Sept. 2, just a day before she accepted the GOP nomination, Palin also took the unusual step of filing an ethics complaint against herself – to move the investigation to the state personnel board whose three members are appointed by the governor – and to make the argument that Branchflower should stop his investigation.
On Friday, Branchflower was forced to seek – and received on a 3-2 vote – the power to subpoena Todd Palin and 13 other witnesses, although not Gov. Palin herself. Lawyers for some of Palin’s aides have indicated they will seek to quash the subpoenas.
Attorney General Colberg’s letter represented another front in Palin’s drive to kill Branchflower’s probe. By insisting that the governor has unlimited authority to examine any state personnel records she wants, the Palin administration is trying to close down out one key investigative avenue.
Attorney Erwin, who represented Palin’s sister in the divorce/custody case, said Wooten’s release form was posted at the governor’s Web site in July as a reaction to some initial allegations that Palin “inappropriately accessed Wooten’s files.”
The information about Wooten “did not come from the governor’s office,” the lawyer said. “I tried at the onset to put that rumor to rest.”
Erwin said she did not share any information in Wooten’s files with Palin or the governor’s aides. However, Erwin said she is sure Palin’s sister disclosed the information to her family and perhaps Gov. Palin decided to act on it.
In July, Palin also issued a statement suggesting that she had obtained information about Wooten’s personnel file through the discovery process related to the divorce/custody battle with her sister.
“Any information regarding personnel records came from the trooper himself,” Palin said.
This past week, Palin’s office removed Wooten’s release form from her official Web site without explanation. The governor's office has refused to comment.
However, the removal roughly coincided with the attorney general’s letter, suggesting that the Palin administration may have realized that Wooten’s records were never part of the public record in the divorce/custody case, leaving the governor and her husband with some legal exposure.
Attorney General Colberg then issued his opinion that the source of Palin’s knowledge about Wooten’s personnel record was irrelevant because she had the right to look into anything she wanted with regards to a state employee.
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