The Alaska Legislature is hastening its ethics investigation into Gov. Sarah Palin's firing of her public safety commissioner, announcing that a report on the matter will be released three weeks earlier than previously announced.
A lawyer for Palin had said earlier this week that the governor would not speak to investigators, preferring to have the investigation transferred to a state personnel board (whose three members are appointed by the governor) for review. Palin had previously said she would cooperate with the probe.
In addition, seven witnesses told the Legislature's investigator they will refuse depositions and canceled their meetings.
In response, State Sen. Hollis French, who is overseeing the investigation into whether Palin abused her power, said the Legislature will subpoena these witnesses.
Palin was not on the list of those to expect subpoenas. French told the Anchorage Daily News that legislators decided not to subpoena Palin as a way to "de-escalate the situation" given the tension that has arisen between the Governor's office and the inquiry. But they clearly expect her to live up to her earlier promise to talk to investigators.
"We just want the truth, clear the air," French told the paper.
Lawmakers are putting the investigation on a fast track now that Palin is Republican John McCain's running mate. The investigation previously was expected to end on Oct. 31, just a few days before Election Day. French said the new target date for investigator Stephen Branchflower to complete the report is Oct. 10.
"It's just basic fairness to the governor," said French, an Anchorage Democrat who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We started to focus on Oct. 31 because that's the end of Mr. Branchflower's contract, but our motion says prepare a report in a timely manner."
Background To Troopergate
In July, a state oversight committee approved $100,000 for an investigation into whether Palin fired public safety commissioner Walt Monegan because he would not dismiss a trooper, Mike Wooten, who went through a messy divorce with her sister before Palin's election as governor.
"I would like to put this behind me and move on with my life," Wooten said in an interview with The Washington Post, published on its Web site Friday night. "I don't wish ill will on anyone. I think that the nomination that Sarah got is great for the state of Alaska. I wish her good luck and the family good luck. I honestly think that everyone involved in this wanted to put this beyond us."
Wooten said he was proud he had once been part of the Palin family, but he contradicted Palin's statement that she overheard him in 2005 threaten her father during an argument with Palin's younger sister, Molly McCann, Wooten's wife at the time.
Wooten noted that an internal investigation failed to sustain the death-threat allegation.
"That did not happen," Wooten said. "There was obviously arguments between Molly and I, but there were no confrontations where I threatened to kill her father. I haven't threatened to kill anyone in that family."
Wooten said he had no direct information about efforts to have him fired after Palin became governor in 2006.
Monegan has said that he received calls from Palin, members of Palin's office and her husband, Todd Palin, about Wooten. Todd Palin has no official role in the Palin administration.
French and Branchflower, both former Anchorage prosecutors, said the state's Legislative Council has the right to authorize the investigation.
But Palin's state-hired attorney Thomas Van Flein said the matter should be taken up by the state's personnel board. Van Flein and Palin have asked the three members to resolve the dispute over the firing.
The board's members are appointed by the governor. One of the three, Debra English, was re-appointed by Palin in January. The other two members - Laura Plenert and Alfred Tamagni, Sr - have served since 2004 and 2006, respectively.
In the meantime, several state employees working for the governor or her administration and deemed crucial witnesses by Branchflower have canceled appointments to give depositions. All potentially could be subpoenaed.
The seven who canceled their deposition who are being targeted by investigators include Palin aide Frank Bailey; Annette Kreitzer, Palin's administration commissioner; staffer Kris Perry; state personnel and labor relations director Nicki Neal; Karen Rehfeld, the governor's budget director; state risk management director Brad Thompson; and human resources manager Dianne Kiesel.
The state's two judiciary committees will meet Sept. 12 to call for the subpoenas, but Palin will not be among those targeted.
"I'm pleased that Gov. Palin will not be subpoenaed," said Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "I don't think it's appropriate that we attach a tinkerbell to her sweater. That would be a bad show on our behalf."
Bailey, the governor's director of boards and commissions, was recorded on tape questioning why Trooper Mike Wooten was still employed.
Wooten divorced Palin's sister and served a five-day suspension after the Palins filed a complaint against him for threatening Palin's father.
The Palins also accused Wooten of using a Taser on his stepson, drinking in his patrol car and illegally shooting a moose.
In the recorded conversation, Bailey is heard telling a lieutenant with the state trooper's office: "Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, why on earth hasn't, why is this guy still representing the department? He's a horrible recruiting tool. ... You know, I mean from their perspective, everyone's protecting him."
Bailey is on paid leave. Last week he gave a sworn statement to Van Flein, telling the attorney he acted on his own.
But Bailey's lawyer Greg Grebe had kept Bailey from meeting Branchflower because, like Van Flein, he questioned Branchflower's jurisdiction.
Separately, senior Assistant Attorney General Mike Barnhill wrote a letter to Branchflower, complaining that the investigation is moving beyond the scope of Palin's firing of Monegan.
Barnhill says the investigation is now looking into whether employees from the Department of Administration illegally obtained confidential information from Wooten's personnel file.
Barnhill wrote that depositions of employees from the Department of Administration are "canceled until further notice."
French, however, said the written mission of the investigation, as approved by the Legislative Council, is clear. It states Branchflower is to "investigate the circumstances and events surrounding the termination of former Public Safety Commissioner Monegan, and potential abuses of power and/or improper actions by members of the executive branch."