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29

Sep

2008

Palin's Office Launched Probe Into Ex Brother-in Law's Disability Claims
Monday, 29 September 2008 08:33
by Jason Leopold

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – collaborating with her husband Todd and several senior aides – conducted what amounted to a rogue investigation into suspicions that her ex-brother-in-law was faking a job-related injury as a state trooper, according to state documents, law enforcement officials and former aides to Palin.

The investigation was conducted using the resources of Gov. Palin’s office and had the goal of destroying Mike Wooten’s career with the Alaska state troopers, the documents  and the interviews reveal.

A little-noticed passage in a transcript of a conversation between Frank Bailey, Palin’s director of boards and commissions, and Alaska State Trooper Lt. Rodney Dial shows that Palin’s office had developed information against Wooten that was turned over to the state’s worker’s compensation board, purportedly to prove that Wooten was not too sick or injured to work.

In the Feb. 28, 2008, conversation with Dial, Bailey disclosed that Gov. Palin and her husband had uncovered information about the trooper that was not publicly available and had collected statements about Wooten going “snowmachining” when he was out on workers comp for a back injury.

“The situation where [Wooten] declared workers comp, but then was caught on an eight-mile snowmachining [sic] trip days — days after, you know, that — that started coming up there,” Bailey said. “So we collected statements that we forwarded on to worker’s comp.”

Bailey said the governor’s office also obtained information that Wooten had “applied for and got a moose ticket to go hunt a moose.”

When the governor’s office learned about the hunting permit, Bailey said he followed up on the lead by talking to Megan Peters, the Alaska state troopers’ public information officer.

“She would not give me — I mean as soon as I mentioned the name Wooten, I told her that, you know, I don’t expect you to share anything with me, but there’s a sense that nothing’s happening with this situation and I want you to have this new information we just received,” Bailey told Dial. “But, of course, I would never hear anything back from that.”

Bailey also voiced frustration that police officials had cautioned Gov. Palin and her husband to back off their campaign to get Trooper Wooten fired.

“Everything that has come back to — to Todd and the governor is basically stay — stay away there’s nothing we can do,” Bailey told Dial. “And that’s just frustrating. …  Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, ‘Why on earth … is this guy still representing the department?’”

Role of ‘First Dude’

The emerging public record shows that Gov. Palin and her husband Todd – who calls himself Alaska’s “First Dude” – have been waging a vendetta to get Trooper Wooten fired since shortly after Palin took office in December 2006.

Even earlier, Palin was enmeshed in a messy family feud with Wooten, her sister’s ex-husband. Through complaints to his superiors, Palin had helped engineer Wooten’s five-day suspension from the state police for various examples of personal misconduct.

In January 2007, a month into Palin’s term, her husband, Todd, invited Palin’s new public safety commissioner Monegan to the governor’s office, where Todd Palin urged Monegan to reopen the Wooten case. After checking on it, Monegan said he informed Todd Palin that he couldn’t do anything because the case was closed.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Monegan said that a few days later, the governor also called him about the Wooten matter and he gave her the same answer. Monegan said Gov. Palin brought the issue up again in a February 2007 meeting at the state capitol, prompting a warning that she should back off.

However, rather than follow that advice, Gov. Palin and her husband appear to have enlisted senior state officials to keep the pressure on. Monegan said he began getting telephone calls from Palin’s aides about Wooten, including from then-chief of staff Mike Tibbles; Commissioner Annette Kreitzer of the Department of Administration; and Attorney General Talis Colberg.

Colberg acknowledged making the call, after an inquiry from Todd Palin about “the process” for handling a threatening trooper, and then relaying back the response from Monegan that the issue had been handled and nothing more could be done.

Todd Palin, who serves as an unofficial adviser to the governor and has billed the state for expenses for trips he takes on his wife’s behalf, continued collecting evidence against Wooten and lobbying for his dismissal. The governor’s husband acknowledged giving Wooten’s boss, Col. Audie Holloway, photos of Wooten driving a snowmobile while he was out of work on worker’s comp.

Alaska’s Deputy Attorney General Michael Barnhill told the Post that a member of the governor’s staff, personnel director Diane Kiesel, also made at least one call to Col. Holloway about the snowmobile incident. [Washington Post, Aug. 31, 2008]

On July 11, 2008, Palin abruptly fired public safety commissioner Monegan, saying only that she wanted to take the public safety department in a different direction.

Monegan then went public with his account of the mounting campaign against Wooten from the governor’s family and staff. Monegan told the Anchorage Daily News that Todd Palin showed him the work of a private investigator, who had been hired by the family to dig into Wooten’s life and who was accusing the trooper of various misdeeds, such as drunk driving and child abuse.

Though Palin vehemently denied that she was involved in the pressure campaign, a review by the Attorney General’s office found that half a dozen state officials had made about two dozen phone calls regarding Wooten.

That was when the Bailey-Dial transcript was released, causing Palin to backtrack somewhat while still insisting that she did not know that Bailey had made phone calls about her ex-brother-in-law. Bailey was put on paid leave.

The state legislature decided to investigate Palin’s possible abuse of power and appointed an independent counsel.

Initially, Palin said she would be “happy to comply, to cooperate” with the investigation, but now – after becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee – she, her husband and several of her top aides are resisting requests for depositions.

Pro-Palin Depositions

Meanwhile, however, Palin’s private attorney, Thomas Van Flein, has deposed two senior officials with the goal of discrediting suspicions that Palin abused her power in the firing of Monegan.

In an Aug. 26 deposition, Van Flein questioned Bailey why he had made damaging statements against Trooper Wooten in the call to Lt. Dial.

Bailey responded that he was genuinely concerned not only about the governor but for “the safety of their family, their kids, their nieces, nephews, her father, regarding Trooper Wooten."

Van Flein then used a line of questioning that appeared to be leading Bailey to a response favorable to Palin.

"You weren't doing it because the governor asked you to, correct?" Van Flein asked Bailey.

"Correct," Bailey responded.

However, Bailey said he obtained information about Wooten’s medical and employment history from Todd Palin.

On Aug. 28, Van Flein deposed Michael Mongale, a state manager with the workers' compensation division. Monagle said there was no truth to rumors that the governor or her office had requested Wooten's workers' comp file.

"Absolutely not," said Monagle, who said that the file is "in my office in a locked file cabinet" for safekeeping.

However, John Cyr, executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association, the union that represents Wooten and other state troopers, disclosed a document that appears to contradict Monagle’s sworn deposition.
 
A routing slip dated Aug. 21 from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development shows Wooten’s workers comp file was pulled and sent to the attention of Mongale.  

“Wooten, as requested,” the routing slip says, which was made out to the attention of “Mike Mongale.”

“A request came in to return all of Wooten’s [worker’s comp] files to Juneau [the state capital],” according to a note and routing slip faxed to Cyr from the worker’s compensation division. “The person who asked to route the files was told the files were being copied for the governor.”

Under Alaska’s strict privacy laws, Wooten would have had to provide written authorization to allow such access. Cyr said the governor does not have the authority to peek into the private employment and medical files of state employees.

“Even as early as a month ago the governor’s office is still mining through Trooper Wooten’s records,” Cyr said. “This is such an abuse of power.”

It’s unclear why Palin’s office would continue to obtain derogatory information about Wooten since his divorce from Palin’s sister, Molly McCann, was finalized in January and a settlement agreement was reached in May.

However, one explanation may be that Wooten was seeking additional custody rights for his children from the judge, court records show.  

Bailey’s attorney would not return calls for comment this week. Palin’s office in Juneau also did not return calls for comment. A spokesman for the McCain-Palin campaign, when confronted with questions about the investigation of Wooten, said he would try to get a response but later declined to comment.

Defending Wooten

Cyr said Wooten was legitimately collecting worker’s compensation, despite allegations to the contrary made by the governor’s office.

In the fall of 2006, Wooten injured himself in the line of duty when he pulled a body from a wrecked automobile, slipped on icy pavement and injured his back. He underwent surgery and was on “light” duty and had filed for worker’s comp when he could not work.

But the Palin family apparently saw the worker’s comp case as another way to get Wooten fired, especially after Sarah Palin became governor.

“Todd Palin was following Mike around snapping pictures of him,” Cyr said. “Frank Bailey was getting people to say that Mike was lying on his worker’s comp form. The governor’s family was following Mike around everywhere. They forwarded that information to the worker’s comp division.

“They were using the machinery of the state to claim that Mike was cheating the system and not eligible for worker’s comp. That was being conducted out of the governor’s office.”

Cyr said he was informed that photographs of Wooten engaged in physical activity were sent to the worker’s compensation office.

Two former Palin aides said material about Wooten was sent on official stationery from the Office of the Governor. A former senior official to Palin also said Sarah Palin openly discussed Wooten with her husband in the presence of her staffers.

“Todd would come back with pictures of [Wooten] doing something they thought was suspicious,” the staffer said. “I think everyone who worked closely with the governor knows who Mike Wooten is and knows she was consumed with him. That’s not a secret.”

Cyr said he first started to hear complaints about Wooten from the governor’s office soon after Palin took office.

“I did not become aware of the [taped] Bailey conversation until it became public,” Cyr said. “But Bailey complained to a bunch of our other members, the airport police who we represent, that I refused to fire Wooten. This was the middle of last winter. One of my members said to me ‘hey John, what’s going on with you and Frank Bailey.’ I remember thinking ‘who is Frank Bailey?’”

Cyr said more than 1,000 e-mails were exchanged between Bailey, and Sarah and Todd Palin, and other officials during this period that, if released, would show that Palin had used her office to keep tabs on Wooten.

Cyr said he filed a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of the union to obtain the e-mails, but the governor’s office said it would cost the union $88,000 for the documents.

“That seems a little steep,” Cyr said. “And suspicious.”

Palin has refused to voluntarily release the e-mails citing executive privilege.

Confidential Information

According to the transcript of the call between Bailey and Lt. Dial, Bailey also claimed that Wooten lied on his trooper application form by failing to disclose “physical impairments” that he suffered while in the Air Force.

Cyr said there was no truth to Bailey’s allegations. But Cyr said some of the issues Bailey raised during his conversation with Dial in February could only have been known if Wooten’s personnel file was accessed.

“It would be illegal for anyone to access Mike [Wooten’s] personnel file unless they had written authorization,” Cyr said.

In a statement issued in July, Palin heatedly denied illegally accessing her ex-brother-in-law’s personnel files and posted two documents on the governor’s Web site, including a release signed by Wooten in February giving his wife’s divorce attorney access to his “entire employment file.”

The posted documents suggested that Palin 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 in her statement.

But the fact that Wooten’s personnel file was released to his ex-wife’s attorney during court proceedings does not mean that Palin’s office then had the right to access the files so it could be used against him, Cyr said.

“Those files were strictly for use during the divorce,” Cyr said. “And it has a sunset provision,” expiring on May 1.

Plus, Cyr said, conducting an investigation of a state trooper’s workers comp situation is “not the job of the governor’s office and that’s exactly what we have been saying. … Why is the governor’s office involved in this trooper’s worker’s compensation claims?”

Cyr said he believes the governor’s office posted documents on her Web site saying state officials were not trying to illegally gain access to Wooten’s files to “inoculate themselves from the fact that they used the resources of the governor’s office to obtain highly confidential information about Trooper Wooten from his personnel file without authorization.”

Last Thursday, Palin’s office removed the two documents, including Wooten’s release form, from her official Web site. 
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