The politically charged investigation into Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is over, and its conclusions are stinging. But the fallout, if any, might not come until Election Day.
A legislative investigator found that Palin violated state ethics laws and abused her power by trying to have her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper.
The next move may be at the ballot box. The legislative committee that released the report Friday recommends no criminal investigation and has no authority to sanction the governor, the Republican vice presidential nominee.
"It is out of the Legislative Council’s hands. It goes to anyone’s hands who got a copy or clicks the link on the Web," said Democratic state Sen. Kim Elton, the chairman of the committee that released the report. "I can’t tell you how the process ends."
If voters believe the report’s finding and it tarnishes Palin’s reputation as a reformer and a champion for good government, that could hurt Republican presidential nominee John McCain in the final weeks of the race.
The McCain campaign quickly rejected that notion.
"I think the American people can tell the difference between the results of a politically motivated investigation and a legitimate finding of fact," campaign spokesman Taylor Griffin said.
The inquiry looked into Palin’s dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan, who said he lost his job because he resisted pressure to fire a state trooper involved in a bitter divorce and custody battle with the governor’s sister. Palin says Monegan was fired as part of a legitimate budget dispute.
Stephen Branchflower, a retired prosecutor hired to conduct the investigation, said Monegan’s firing was lawful. But the pressure Palin and her husband put on him, he said, was not.
Under Alaska law, it is up to the state’s Personnel Board, not the Legislature, to decide whether Palin violated the ethics laws. If so, it must refer the matter to the Senate president for disciplinary action. Violations also carry a possible fine of up to $5,000.
By the time that investigation is over, however, the election will be over. If Palin is the vice president-elect, the results will hardly matter. If she loses, she’ll have to address the board’s findings at home. The national media will be long gone.
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign did not comment on the report amid persistent accusations by Republicans that rival operatives were manipulating the investigation to help the Democratic presidential nominee.
Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who oversaw the investigation, contributed to that perception when he said the report could provide an "October surprise" for the McCain campaign.
Elton said partisanship played no role in the report.
"When we began investigating this, we had no idea that Sarah Palin would be a part of the national ticket," said Elton, an Obama supporter.
Branchflower said Palin violated a statute of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act. Lawmakers don’t have the authority to sanction her for such a violation and they gave no indication they would take any action against her.
Palin has recently said that the Personnel Board inquiry is the only one that matters. And McCain’s campaign echoed those comments Friday.
"This is the opinion of this Legislative Council investigation," Griffin said. "It’s just an opinion."
The report notes a few instances in which Palin pressed the case against trooper Mike Wooten, but it was her husband, Todd, who led the charge. Todd Palin had extraordinary access to the governor’s office and her closest advisers and he used that access to try to get Wooten fired.
Gov. Palin knowingly "permitted Todd to use the Governor’s office and the resources of the Governor’s office, including access to state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get Trooper Wooten fired," Branchflower’s report reads.
Wooten had been in hot water before Palin became governor over allegations that he illegally shot a moose, drank beer in a patrol car and used a Taser on his stepson. The Palins said they feared for their family’s safety after Wooten made threats against them.
Associated Press Writer Adam Goldman contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Branchflower report: http://download1.legis.state.ak.us/DOWNLOAD.pdf
State Ethics Statutes: http://www.law.state.ak.us/pdf/ethics/ethicstatutes.pdf