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The presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain is trying to put to rest the ethical controversy that’s come to be known as "Troopergate," releasing e-mails supporting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s contention that she dismissed her public safety commissioner over budget disagreements, not because he wouldn’t fire her ex-brother-in-law.
And, the campaign says, Palin is unlikely to speak with an investigator hired by the state legislature to look into the matter.
Among the e-mails released was one of farewell written by the public safety commissioner himself, Walt Monegan, when he was fired in July. In it, he suggested the governor had reason to believe she had lost his support, and urged his former colleagues to communicate better with her.
"For anyone to lead effectively they must have the support of their team, and I had waited too long outside her door for her to believe that I supported her," he wrote. "Please, choose a different path."
The controversy erupted in the weeks following the firing, as it emerged that Palin, her husband, Todd, and several high-level staffers had contacted Monegan about state trooper Mike Wooten, who had gone through a nasty divorce from Palin’s sister before she became governor. While Monegan says no one from the administration ever told him directly to fire Wooten, he says they didn’t have to: There was nothing subtle about the repeated contacts.
In July, the four Democrats and eight Republicans on Alaska’s Legislative Council voted unanimously to investigate the circumstances of Monegan’s dismissal. Although Monegan was an at-will employee who could be fired for almost any reason, lawmakers wanted to see whether Palin tried to use her office to settle a personal score with Wooten.
The state Senate Judiciary Committee voted Friday to issue subpoenas to 13 people, including Palin’s husband, to compel cooperation with the investigation. The campaign said it didn’t know if Todd Palin planned to challenge his subpoena.
The governor has not been subpoenaed, but the investigator hired by the legislature, Steve Branchflower, said Friday he is interested in speaking with her. Campaign spokesman Ed O’Callaghan said that was unlikely as long as the investigation "remains tainted."
Though the governor initially said she’d cooperate, after she became McCain’s running mate in late July, her lawyer sought to have the three-member state Personnel Board take over, alleging that public statements made by the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Hollis French, indicated the probe was politically motivated.
French had said the results of the investigation could constitute an "October surprise" for the McCain campaign. He later apologized. The campaign also insists that French, Branchflower and Monegan are friends, even though the men say they only know each other professionally and have never socialized.
Democrats charged that the McCain campaign was trying to stall the investigation.
"Rather than cooperating with the investigation, the Republican presidential campaign is doing everything it can to stall and smear," said Patti Higgins, chairwoman of the Alaska Democratic Party.
McCain campaign spokeswoman Meg Stapleton denigrated Monegan at a news conference Monday, accusing the three-decade cop of "insubordination," "obstructionist conduct" and a "brazen refusal" to follow proper channels for requesting money.
When Monegan was fired, the governor offered to let him head the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Asked why someone with a history of insubordination would be given such a position, Stapleton said that without having to deal with a budget, Monegan would be able to focus on alcohol abuse issues.
The governor "respects the fact that he was respected in the community," she said.
Thomas Van Flein, a lawyer for the governor’s office, cited the newly released e-mails Monday in asking the Personnel Board to find no probable cause for an ethics investigation.
In an interview Monday night, Monegan said Palin never raised concerns about his management. In fact, at an event in May, she singled him out and praised his efforts to reduce violence against native women.
"In my time as a commissioner, the governor has never talked to me about complaints about my efforts," Monegan said.
He said all he meant to convey in his farewell letter was that because he was being fired, the governor must have believed he didn’t support her, and to the extent his communication skills were to blame, others should avoid his mistake.
The e-mails made clear that some Palin staffers believed Monegan and the Department of Public Safety worked outside normal channels. One was written in May by Randy Ruaro, then a special assistant to Palin, to the governor’s budget director, and concerned efforts to pay for and build a crime lab.
"I FEEL YOUR PAIN! DPS is constantly going off the reservation," he wrote.
In February, Monegan signed a public letter of support for a $3.6 million project designed to keep troubled teens off the street in Anchorage — even though the governor had vetoed the project last year and hadn’t included money for it in her budget this year.
"I am stunned and amazed — do you know anything about this?" budget director Karen Rehfeld wrote to two other high-level staffers when she learned of the letter.
"Think about that: one of the governor’s own cabinet members publicly contradicting her veto decision," Stapleton said.
Monegan acknowledged he shouldn’t have signed the letter, because it put the governor in the awkward position of defending her veto decision. But he said he thought of the letter as simply making another run at getting funding for a worthy project.
The last straw, the McCain campaign said, was in July, when Monegan planned to travel to Washington to seek federal money for a plan to assign troopers, judges and prosecutors who could exclusively handle sexual assault cases — one of the state’s most intractable crime problems.
In a July 7 e-mail, John Katz, the governor’s special counsel, noted two problems with the trip: The governor hadn’t agreed the money should be sought, and the request was "out of sequence with our other appropriations requests and could put a strain on the evolving relationship between the Governor and Sen. (Ted) Stevens."
Four days later, Monegan was fired. He said he had kept others in the administration fully apprised of his plans to go to Washington.