Alaska state legislators approved subpoenas for the husband of GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and 12 others, as part of an ongoing investigation into whether Palin abused her power as state governor.
In a nondescript conference room filled to capacity, a Republican-dominated panel of lawmakers voted to issue subpoenas to force testimony by Alaska "First Gentleman" Todd Palin and a dozen current and former state officials, including aides to Gov. Palin, to determine whether she had misused her authority in firing one of her commissioners in July.
A lawyer for Palin and her aides, Thomas V. Van Flein, said the subpoenas were "a legal issue that will have to be evaluated and discussed with clients."
Special counsel Stephen Branchflower, who is conducting the probe, said Palin was a "central figure" in the events he is investigating. He said the subpoenas were necessary because individuals declined to answer questions voluntarily. Several had previously agreed to interviews with Branchflower, he said, but later cancelled them.
The subpoenas mark the latest chapter in a scandal that began as a local flap but rocketed to the nation's front pages when McCain picked Palin as his running mate nearly two weeks ago.
The probe was prompted by Palin's July 11 firing of her former public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, after he refused to dismiss Mike Wooten, a state trooper who was Palin's ex-brother-in-law. Wooten and Palin's sister had gone through a lengthy and bitter divorce and custody battle in 2005, during which Palin herself had accused Wooten of threatening her and her father. Wooten has denied that.
In his remarks before lawmakers this morning, Branchflower characterized Todd Palin as one of Wooten's chief critics, and said he was involved in a meeting with Monegan and other public officials, in the governor's office, on the topic of Wooten, shortly after his wife was sworn in as governor.
Palin has said she fired Monegan because she wanted to move his department in a "new direction," and he was not being "a team player on budgeting issues."
When the flap erupted in July, Palin maintained her office had not pressured Monegan to fire Wooten. The governor was forced to reframe her position in August, after a recording surfaced of a phone call in which one of her aides, Frank Bailey, discussed firing Wooten with a state trooper official.
"I do now have to tell Alaskans that such pressure could have been perceived to exist although I have only now become aware of it," Palin said at the time, noting that in addition to the call, another two dozen contacts from her aides – and even her husband – to public safety officials about Wooten had been identified.
Monegan has said Palin had discussed Wooten with him personally on two occasions, and emailed him about the matter. He said he believed his refusal to fire Wooten led her to dismiss him.
Palin's position on cooperating with the investigation has shifted dramatically since she joined the McCain ticket.
"The governor has said all along that she will fully cooperate with an investigation and her staff will cooperate as well," her spokeswoman said in July after the State Legislature voted to hire a special counsel to investigate the matter.
On Friday, Aug. 29, McCain announced Palin was his vice-presidential pick. The following Monday, Palin's office retained a lawyer to represent her in the investigation, who immediately challenged the legitimacy of the investigation's jurisdiction.
After the hearing, Palin's lawyer Van Flein said the probe was unfair and unconstitutional. "The governor said she was going to cooperate with a fair and impartial invwstigation into this," he said, "[but] it has turned into a partisan effort and what I consider to be an unconstituional effort to bring politics into this."
He declined to answer questions about how he was chosen to represent Palin, citing attorney-client privilege. Van Flein said he works "by word of mouth."
Legislators have said Palin herself won't be subpoenaed to testify, but they said they do expect her to speak with Branchflower.
Court documents show that in 2005 a judge ordered Sarah Palin and her family to stop disparaging Wooten. Anchorage judge John Suddock, who presided over the contentious divorce between Mike Wooten and Palin's sister Molly Hackett, said that if Palin's family did not leave Wooten alone, he would curtail Hackett's custody rights.
Some Republican lawmakers at the hearing raised concerns about the probe. "There's something fishy here," said Sen. Gene Therriault from Fairbanks.
Others acknowledged the increased pressure that Palin's new national role has brought to the probe, but pushed their colleagues to dismiss them. "I'm taking a break from my moose hunting" for the hearing, complained Sen. Charlie Huggins, a Republican from Wasilla, Palin's hometown. "I want the truth -- the sooner, the better, no matter the consequences." In the end, Huggins said, the effect the probe might have on national politics "will mean. .. a hill of beans."