Alaska’s Growing Pains
Monday, October 13, 2008 at 1:13 pm
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – As one of the most successful newcomers in Alaska’s political arena, Gov. Sarah Palin should have known better than to get into an ethics scandal right now.
The mood of the public in Alaska has been changing, gradually, but noticeably in the last few years. Palin was one of the first to catch on to it — and exploit it to win an upset victory in the 2006 governor’s race.
Before then, an Alaska official who pursued a personal vendetta in office probably would not have drawn the ire of the state’s legislature. Voters in the state would have looked the other way too.
But Alaska seems to have gained a new political maturity.
Palin ran for governor on a reform platform that proved widely appealing. She knocked out the state’s sitting governor, Frank Murkowski, in the GOP primary and defeated a well-known former governor, Tony Knowles, in the general election. Knowles campaigned on “experience” — which effectively tied him to the corruption-tainted old guard, though it was the GOP that was embroiled in scandal. That year, voters elected four Democrats to replace Republicans in the state House and Senate.
The politics that Palin pledged to reform was typified by a clique of state lawmakers that embraced the nickname the “Corrupt Bastards Club” because of its cash-for-votes relationship with an oil services firm, Veco Corp. The group had baseball caps made, on Veco’s dime, with their “CBC” insignia embroidered on the back.
The CBCers eventually landed in trouble with the law. The FBI raided 12 legislative offices in 2006, as part of a broad investigation into ties between state and federal lawmakers and Veco Corp., whose former chief executive, Bill Allen, and former vice president, Rick Smith, have pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges.
Since the raids, three state legislators have been convicted of bribery charges in connection with Veco. Allen and Smith are cooperating with prosecutors.
A testament to just how much the legislature has changed came this summer when news broke that Palin may have unethically fired her commissioner of public safety, Walt Monegan, over a long-standing family feud with her ex-brother-in-law.
The legislature acted swiftly. It hired Steve Branchflower, a well-respected former Alaska prosecutor with 28 years experience in the Anchorage district attorney’s office, to handle the investigation. A legislative committee voted unanimously Friday to release his 236-page report on “Troopergate,” as the scandal is known, to the public.
Alaska, only 50 years old this year, is growing up politically.
Branchflower’s report found that Palin violated a state ethics law by overseeing a coordinated effort to get her ex-brother-in-law, Michael Wooten, fired from his job as a state trooper. Palin ultimately fired Monegan after he wouldn’t oust Wooten, despite being pressured by the governor’s husband, Todd, as well as multiple state officials, including the state attorney general. Todd Palin also pressured Monegan’s replacement on the same issue.
Branchflower exonerated the governor on her final decision to fire Monegan, though the investigator concluded that Monegan’s refusal to oust Wooten was likely a factor in his removal.
Before Troopergate, it had been more than 20 years since the legislature asserted itself so aggressively in an ethics matter.
“It was just over two years ago that the FBI raided the legislative offices in Anchorage and Juneau,” said state Sen. Hollis French, the Anchorage Democrat who headed the Troopergate investigation. “Since that time, the state’s been very alert to ethical lapses in government.”
The state legislature approved the hiring of Branchflower to investigate the matter in June, three months before Sen. John McCain tapped Palin for the GOP ticket. Branchflower spent much of his career evaluating cases submitted by police and state troopers for prosecution to determine if the D.A.’s office should take them up.
“Steve Branchflower’s report is a model of keen analysis and hard work,” French said. “He’s fair. He analyzed the facts, and I think he came to balanced conclusions.”
Even among lawmakers who have doubts about the report’s findings, none has questioned Branchflower’s integrity.
“The report was probably rushed to get done before the election,” said Rep. Bill Stoltze, who voted to appoint Branchflower and voted Friday to make the report public.
Stoltze said he didn’t like that Branchflower used inference to reach his conclusions, though he did not question its fairness. Stoltze said he wished there had been “more participation” — a reference to Palin’s decision not to testify, after she had first agreed to cooperate.
THE REFORM CANDIDATE
Palin has said the report is a vindication of her conduct. “I’m very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing … any hint of any kind of unethical activity there,” Palin told the Anchorage Daily News in a phone interview from the campaign trail.
One of the report’s findings, however, is that Palin broke the law.
That Alaska governor’s ethics problems certainly don’t square with the reform candidate of 2006.
Palin had a strong sense of the changing attitudes toward corruption in Alaska and tapped those sentiments to move into the governor’s office. “Alaskans deserve transparency and accountability from their leaders,” said Palin on her 2006 campaign website. “It’s a philosophy I will promote as governor.”
About a month before voters went to the polls in 2006, news cameras captured FBI agents carrying boxes of material out of the 12 state lawmakers’ offices — including Senate President Ben Stevens, son of Sen. Ted Stevens. The younger Stevens has not been charged.
Buttressing her reputation as a reformer after the election, Palin stood up to her own state party chairman over accusations of a conflict-of-interest with oil companies. And she filed a bipartisan complaint that led to the resignation of the state’s GOP attorney general.
Things were even starting to change for the federal delegation.
This year, Alaska celebrates its 50th year of statehood, thanks to Sen. Ted Stevens, who helped usher the territory into statehood in 1958. Stevens, the longest-serving GOP senator, has been in the Senate since 1972.
T-shirts are on sale all over Anchorage right now featuring the image of a 1958 newspaper front page with the headline: “We’re In!”
By 2006, Stevens — known here as “the most famous Alaskan” — was starting to take heat nationally for his infamous earmarking. The non-partisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Commonsense estimates that Alaskans see about $4,300 per person in federal dollars return to their state, compared to states with far larger populations like Texas or New York, where residents see about $95 per person.
Stevens, now on trial in federal court in Washington on charges of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from Veco Corp., without disclosing them on Senate ethics forms, is slipping in the polls in his reelection bid. The gifts include the construction of a new first floor in his Girdwood home, furnishings and a state-of-the-art Viking grill.
Stevens is locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Mark Begich, Anchorage’s mayor. The last poll showed Begich with a four-point edge. In 2002, Stevens won with 78 percent of the vote.
Many long-time Stevens supporters are starting to reconsider whether the state should keep the longtime GOP senator in office. “[Stevens] brought a lot of money to the state,” said Susanne Hutzel, a nurse who lives 20 minutes outside Anchorage. “But, we have to have a balance.”
Still, change doesn’t come all at once. Stevens garners nearly 50 percent of Alaskan voters Alaskans like Claude Morris, a retired oil field project manager and World War II veteran who lives on the same street in Girdwood as Stevens. Morris credits the senator with bringing Alaska into the modern era, not to mention the town of Girdwood, a small ski-resort town about an hour and a half drive south of Anchorage.
“Ted Stevens has got my vote no matter what,” Morris said in a recent conversation in the Double Musky Inn’s bar, Stevens’ favorite hometown restaurant. “For what he has done for Alaska for the last 40-some years.”
The state’s only congressman, Rep. Don Young, a feisty character who has never achieved the same popularity as Stevens, is facing a far tougher electoral battle. He’s down about nine percentage points in the polls.
Young’s popularity has been sliding since last year, when a series of corruption scandals came to light. Young has been accused of taking money from Florida developers in exchange for a $10-million earmark. The Senate has since asked the FBI to look into the earmark, added to a bill after it passed Congress.
News also broke last year that Young is under federal investigation for his connections with Veco. Federal agents are looking into an annual pig-roast fund-raiser held at Veco chief executive Allen’s home. Last year, Young was booed and oinked as he arrived at the event.
“Don’s problem in that race is that in six polls in a row he’s had a negative rating above 50 percent, and he’s got to push that down into the mid-40s, or below, to have a chance,” Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore told Alaska’s NBC affiliate, KTUU, when the last Young poll was released. “You know, you just can’t win when more than half the people don’t like you.”
If Palin returns to Alaska as a state politician, it’s unclear if she will be regarded by voters as another of their pols who doesn’t deserve their trust.
Little is likely to happen before the regular legislative session begins Jan. 20, according to House GOP spokesman Will Vandergriff. For there to be a special session, a supermajority of lawmakers — 45 members out of 60 — must approve. Palin could also call a special session — though that is considered unlikely.
If the legislature went into special session, Palin could face impeachment.
Sen. Kim Elton (D-Juneau), who served as chairman of the Legislative Council that oversaw the Troopergate investigation, said in an interview with TWI shortly after the report was released Friday that he is not prepared to start considering taking action against Palin. The violation of the state ethics law outlined in Branchflower’s report caries up to a $5,000 civil penalty.
“This is like truth and consequences, Elton said, standing in a hallway of the Anchorage legislative office building where the report was released. “Today, I will say we got the truth. The facts are now public. I’m not prepared to go to consequences.”
Once the legislature is back in session, it will have to decide whether to act on Branchflower’s report.
Does all this signify a turning point for public corruption in Alaska?
“I think we will try to grow up,” said former Anchorage Daily News editorial page editor Michael Carey. “Or we will be caught in the Palin lie machine.”
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