Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Five Alaska Republican State Lawmakers Sue To Stop Special Investigation Of Sarah Palin And Troopergate; Talis Colberg Balks At Subpoenas

The public relations blitz on behalf of Governor Sarah Palin by the McCain-Palin presidential campaign has now engulfed five Alaska Republican state lawmakers, who filed suit on September 16th, 2008 to stop the bipartisan investigation into Gov. Sarah Palin's firing of former Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, even though the vice presidential candidate once said she welcomed the probe into allegations of abuse of power. Full stories published by the Anchorage Daily News, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and KTUU Channel 2.

The 27-page lawsuit, filed in Anchorage Third District Court by Senator Tom Wagoner (R-Nikiski), Senator Fred Dyson (R-Eagle River), Rep. Bob Lynn (R-Anchorage Hillside), Rep. Wes Keller (R-Wasilla), and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Fairbanks), called the investigation "unlawful, biased, partial and partisan". All but Dyson are up for re-election this year. As a matter of fact, because Governor Palin still officially calls Wasilla home, she is technically a constituent of Rep. Keller. None of the lawmakers who filed the suit serves on the bipartisan Legislative Council, made up of eight Republicans and four Democrats, that unanimously approved the investigation in July.

The lawsuit specifically targets Senator Hollis French (D-Anchorage), who is overseeing the investigation; Senator Kim Elton (D-Juneau), who heads the Legislative Council; independent investigator Steve Branchflower; and the other 11 members of the Legislative Council itself. The lawsuit seeks to either delay the investigation until after the November 4th general election, or to remove French and Elton altogether. "There is no nonpartisan reason to complete this investigation until after the election," said Anchorage attorney Kevin G. Clarkson, who also works for the law firm Brena, Bell & Clarkson. "We just want to take the politics out of it and bring fairness back into it".

Clarkson said he and a nonprofit legal firm in Texas, Liberty Legal Institute, were donating their work on the suit. Liberty Legal Institute consists of a network of 120 attorneys who specialize in protecting religious freedom and First Amendment rights. Their own press release is posted HERE. I have found no connection between this group and the much more prominent Liberty Counsel, which is a part of the late Jerry Falwell's politico-religious advocacy empire.

And there's more. In Fairbanks, a group of citizens from both Fairbanks and North Pole also also filed a 14-page lawsuit in Fairbanks District Court against the lead legislative investigator, Steve Branchflower. The Voice Of The Times identifies the litigants as former lawmaker Bob Bettisworth; Jim Dodson, president of Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.; Seth Church; North Pole dentist David Eichler; attorney Tom Temple; and Alan Simmons. They claim Branchflower's investigation is unconstitutional and want a judge to stop it by issuing a declaration that the Legislative Council and Steve Branchflower lack the authority to investigate this matter and/or to expend funding for such an investigation.

Update September 18th: Former Alaska State Representative Andrew Halcro believes both these lawsuits will fail based upon his legislative experience. Read his prognosis HERE.

Separately, House Speaker John Harris (R-Valdez) sent a letter this morning to Senator Kim Elton, chairman of the Legislative Council, demanding that the body convene within a week "for the purpose of discussing the status of the investigation currently under way by Stephen Branchflower". Harris is also concerned that what started out as a non-partisan investigation has become excessively polarized. And Senator Elton wasted little time in responding to Speaker Harris. He addressed the issue in an e-mail, posted on the ADN's Alaska Politics blog. Here's the substantive part of his response:

“While the suit is a distraction,” Sen. Elton said today [Sept. 16], “I’m comfortable with the notion that the court will review the substance of the suit and find the Council acted properly and that the decisions made during the course of the investigation so far are appropriate and well within the mandate of the Council.” He added the investigation will continue pending a ruling from the court.

“The silver lining in this action initiated by the five lawmakers,” Elton said, “is that some of that debate now has been kicked to the judicial branch which, unlike the legislature and the governor’s office, is more insulated from the red-hot passion of presidential politics.”

Elton noted an attorney will be hired to represent the named parties in the suit though a decision on who that attorney will be has not yet been made.

And yes, there's more yet. The Anchorage Daily News, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and KTUU Channel 2 report that Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg sent a letter to the State Senate Judiciary Committee in which he said that the 11 state employees subpoenaed will not appear before the investigator unless either the full Senate or entire Legislature votes to compel their testimony. Last week, a Senate committee voted to subpoena the 11 employees - plus two private citizens including Palin's husband, Todd - in the investigation of whether the governor fired her public safety chief for refusing to dismiss her former brother-in-law, a state trooper.

In the letter, Colberg writes, "On behalf of our clients, we respectfully ask that you withdraw the subpoenas directed to our clients and thereby relieve them from the circumstance of having to choose where their loyalties lie. If the subpoenas are not withdrawn by the Senate Judiciary Committee, our clients will not appear in response to the subpoenas until either the Senate or the full Legislature convenes to issue a resolution requiring their presence before the appropriate legislative committee".

All this relates to the scandal known as Troopergate, which gained national attention after Republican presidential candidate John McCain chose Palin as his running mate on August 29th. Since then, Palin and the McCain campaign have sought to distance Palin from the controversy and have taken actions that could slow its resolution until after the November election.

- Previous posts about Troopergate HERE.
- Index to all previous Anchorage Daily News stories on Troopergate HERE.

Commentary: What a change a month makes! Only one month ago, Sarah Palin, then a mere governor, expressed her willingness to cooperate completely with the Branchflower investigation. Now, after having become a celebrity vice-presidential candidate, there's a full-scale four-pronged offensive to squelch this investigation altogether. Five state lawmakers in Anchorage, a group of citizens in Fairbanks, the Speaker of the House, and the Attorney General. All this muscle combining to quash an investigation into a firing. And we're supposed to believe there's nothing to hide. Hey, I have a bridge for sale.

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