Politics & Policy

Runaway Justice

Sarah and Todd Palin's reaction to their brother-in-law is understandable, but it crossed a line.

The entire “Troopergate” brouhaha can be summed up in one question: If your brother in law was a cop, and he had Tasered your 11-year-old nephew because the boy wanted to know what it felt like, would you want him to remain a cop? If the answer is ‘no,’ what would you do to ensure he departed the police force?

To the Palins, it meant complaining, both to the State Police and to essentially anyone who would listen, including the governor’s chief of staff, the state attorney general, and chief of staff of the speaker of the State House of Representatives. Those complaints were passed on to Alaska’s Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, who had ultimate authority.

#ad#For their actions, a state special counsel’s report has concluded that Palin abused her power. Others have noted that the report suggests that Palin did this for personal gain, a dubious assertion; removing a cop with egregious judgment from his position of authority would benefit all Alaskans, not just Palin.

The following facts about Sarah Palin’s brother in-law, Mike Wooten, were confirmed by a 2005 State Police investigation:

‐ He used a Taser on his stepson.

‐  He shot a moose without a license, violating a law he has responsibility for enforcing.

‐ He drank beer in his patrol car on one occasion.

‐ He told others his father-in-law would “eat a [expletive]ing lead bullet” if he helped his daughter get an attorney for the divorce.

Wooten’s tenure with the Alaska State Police also includes a reprimand in January 2004 for negligent damage to a state vehicle; a January 2005 instruction after being accused of speeding, unsafe lane changes, following too closely and not using turn signals in his state vehicle; a June 2005 instruction regarding personal cell phone calls; an October 2005 suspension from work after getting a speeding ticket; and a November 2005 memo “to clarify duty hours, tardiness and personal business during duty time.”

At the conclusion of the 2005 investigation, the State Police concluded Wooten exhibited “a significant pattern of judgment failures,” and decided the appropriate discipline was… a ten-day suspension.

After this, Palin and her husband Todd clearly made efforts to get the State Police to investigate and reinvestigate his misbehavior, and there is little doubt they wanted Wooten fired.

Reading the state special counsel’s report, one concludes that the actions of the Palins were legal and completely understandable, and yet crossed a line in their persistence.

Their reaction is entirely understandable; even if every unverified allegation is untrue, the various violations of law, police policy, and good judgment confirmed by Wooten’s superiors obviously warrants a lot more than two weeks off. Nonetheless, the actions of the Palins led to a series of high-ranking state officials contacting the state police to reopen their investigation of the guy, and the governor had to know how that would look. It is difficult to be objective about a complaint when it comes from the person who can fire you at will.

But while the coverage has painted Palin as a corrupt villainess abusing her power, there is considerable evidence that Wooten’s behavior warranted great concern, and that the Alaska State Police’s process of disciplining him for his actions — and evaluating if he deserved to keep his badge and position — proceeded at a snail’s pace.

You would never know it, but the 268-page report to the state legislature found “Governor Palin’s firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statuatory authority to hire and fire executive branch department heads.” So note that the firing of Monegan was not the abuse of power; the series of contacts about Wooten was.

Former State Trooper Colonel Julia Grimes, who had oversight over the investigation of Wooten, repeatedly characterized her conversations with Sarah and Todd Palin as “cordial.” She characterized the governor’s comments as “how can a trooper who behaves this way still be working?” And Grimes said she sought to assure her that if the allegations were confirmed, “I did not tolerate that kind of behavior in a trooper, that it was as offensive to me as it was to her.”

Alaska statute ensures the confidentiality of certain state personnel records and information, and as a result, the State Police repeatedly told the Palins that they could not give an update on the status of the investigation or any conclusions drawn. The perspective of each side is understandable — Palin and her family want a man they perceived to be dangerous to be relieved of his authority and public trust; the State Police have to honor the statute and confidentiality and the due process rights of Wooten.  (One of the recommendations of the report is to study whether those regulations need to be relaxed,” in order to “allow some feedback to a person who files a complaint against a law enforcement officer.”)

#page#

After Wooten was given the ten-day suspension, the Palins made clear they felt it was insufficient, conclusion, with both characterizing it in separate conversations as “a slap on the wrist.” Early in his tenure, Todd Plain met with Monegan, and reiterated his concerns about Wooten.  Monegan characterized Todd Palin as “not certainly out of control, but he was passionate about how he was addressing this issue.” Palin asked Monegan to review the investigation to see if any evidence to support the allegations was overlooked, and Monegan agreed.

#ad#Monegan said that after the conversation he began to feel pressured — a natural response of an at-will state employee facing a “passionate” issue from the spouse of the boss.

Monegan concluded that there was nothing overlooked in the investigation, an answer with left Todd Palin “frustrated.” In the report’s account of Monegan and Palin’s conversation, there are no indications of threats,  promises, comments in the vein of “Wait until the governor hears about this.”

A day or two later, Sarah Palin called Monegan, “echoing the frustration,” in his words. Monegan characterized her response as “disappointed” — again, not enraged, threatening, etc.. Palin brought up Wooten in another conversation, and Monegan suggested that because she is his direct superior, he would be better off talking with Todd, a “citizen.” She agreed.

Palin’s chief of staff brought Wooten up in a meeting with Monegan, and Monegan noted that “should there be any litigation brought on by Trooper Wooten, this conversation is discoverable.” The topic was dropped.

During this time, Todd Palin filed several complaints that, while each separately understandable, collectively strongly suggest that the Palins were trying to pile up complaints to get Wooten dismissed. Among the complaints are a report stating Wooten operating a snowmobile while collecting workers’ compensation for an injury (he had his doctor’s approval); and a report seeing Wooten dropping off his children to school in a patrol car (he had his superior’s approval).

Palin herself said during a press conference, “The serial nature of the contacts understandably could be perceived as some kind of pressure presumably at my direction.”

On the other hand, Commissioner Monegan defended a process that concluded that making death threats,  Tasering a child, drinking in a police vehicle and breaking a hunting law he was responsible for enforcing only warranted two weeks away from the job, and never seemed to address the very real concern at the heart of the Palins’ complaints: Why was this man still a cop? Just what would he have to do to face dismissal? Wasn’t the state gambling that Wooten’s pattern of bad judgment would not result injury or death to a citizen?

Monegan probably greatly exacerbated the situation in May of this year when he asked Palin to sign a photo of a saluting state trooper, an image that was intended to be turned into a poster for display in state offices. In what is either a jaw-dropping coincidence or a tasteless attempt to bait Palin, the photo was of her brother-in-law Wooten. (Monegan says he had not seen a photo of Wooten before.)

The photo appears to have been the last straw for the governor, concluding that Monegan had been “unresponsive” and had been absent from or delegating his duties.

The Palins deserved to have someone tell them, “this is too much, you are putting state employees in an awkward position.” But before Palin gets demonized, it is worth noting that all of this is spurred by a police offer who lacked the judgment to know that Tasering an 11-year-old because he asks for it is wrong. Beyond that, this exceptionally poor judgment was spared serious disciplinary action by a state police culture that seemed disturbingly unconcerned about a repeated pattern of behavior. The Palins were rightly worried about an individual of that character walking around with a badge and a gun, a formula for trouble; in an e-mail the governor referred to Wooten as “this trooper-time-bomb.”

Note that at no point did either of the Palins demand, “fire this man.” They did ask, repeatedly, how someone who behaves like that can continue to be on the force. It is not an unreasonable question.

The Washington Post editors managed to not mention any of  Wooten’s actions in their editorial damning Palin; in their interpretation, readers are left unaware of any misdeed on his part, making Palin’s actions appear to be a wildly unjustified vendetta.

Palin’s intervention in the matter appears to be a unique set of circumstances; there is no evidence to suggest this is part of a sweeping and far-reaching pattern of abusing her office. If Sarah Palin responded to Wooten’s pattern of dangerous behavior in a manner that crossed an ethical boundary, her response can also be called “human.”

 – Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on NRO.

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