ANCHORAGE -- A joint legislative committee Friday voted to subpoena the husband of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and a dozen others as part of its probe into whether the Alaska governor abused her power when she fired the head of the state police.
Committee members said they agreed before the meeting not to subpoena the governor herself, though no one said why.
At issue in the investigation is whether Palin, her husband Todd or her aides acted improperly when governor sacked Public Safety Director Walt Monegan in July after he refused to dismiss Palin's former brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, a state trooper whom the governor said had threatened her family. The trooper has denied making such threats.
The question, essentially, is whether Palin injected the power of the state into a family feud. The investigative report is due Oct. 10 — well in time to become grist for the presidential campaign.
In a reflection of how the case has assumed national significance, the committee room in a downtown office building was packed with reporters and television cameras. And, while Republicans and Democrats once were unanimous that the investigation should go forward quickly, today two GOP lawmakers sought to delay issuing the subpoenas until after the November election.
The Palin administration, which initially cooperated with the investigation, stopped doing so after GOP presidential nominee John McCain picked Palin as his running mate. An investigator hired by the legislature in August, former prosecutor Stephen Branchflower, told lawmakers that several state officials had canceled sworn interviews with him in recent days on the advice of the assistant attorney general, who works for a Palin appointee.
In a letter released Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Michael Barhill said he would go to court to block the subpoenas, because, he argued, the investigation was being conducted unfairly.
Sen. Gene Therriault, a Republican on the joint committee, said: "To the general public in Alaska, the view has gone up that this investigation has taken on an increasing political flavor, and it's unsettling to them," he said.
Sen. Hollis French, the committee chair, and other Democrats disputed that. So did some Republicans.
"I do not support Sen. Obama," said Sen. Charlie Huggins, a Republican from Palin's hometown of Wasilla, who was wearing camouflage hunting pants. "I'm simply here today, with a short break in my moose hunting, to say, let's get to the facts."
Branchflower sat in the witness chair and told lawmakers he needed the subpoenas because key figures in the investigation had stopped cooperating with him.
In addition to taking testimony, the committee voted to demand the cellphone records of Frank Bailey, a Palin aide who was placed on leave last month. Bailey was recorded discussing personal information about Wooten, raising questions of how he knew those details.
Todd Palin, Branchflower said, is a "central figure," in the case because he had met with administration officials and criticized Wooten. "The first gentleman," as Branchflower called him, was not satisfied with the five-day suspension given Wooten in 2006 for misconduct that included using a taser on his 10-year-old son, shooting a female moose, and driving his patrol car after drinking alcohol. Wooten denies drinking and driving.
Branchflower said he needed subpoenas to interview several Palin aides who had been in meetings about the matter. And in one case, he said, he needed to compel the interview of a state contractor whom he said may have lied to him.
Murlene Wilkes owns Harbor Adjusting Services in Anchorage, which has a contract with the state to process workers' compensation claims, Branchflower said. She told him the governor's office did not pressure her to deny a claim for Wooten, he said. But in August, one of her employees called a tip line and claimed there indeed was such pressure, Branchflower said.
"I remember at some point in the conversation she had mentioned or said something to the effect that either the governor or the governor's office wanted this claim denied," Branchflower quoted the tipster as saying. "I don't care if it's the president who wants this claim denied, I'm not going to deny it unless I have the medical evidence to do that."
Wilkes may have had a financial incentive to cover up, Branchflower said. Wilkes did not immediately return a voicemail left at her office Friday afternoon.
Therriault said he believes the Palin administration will "ignore" the subpoenas, setting up what he called "a branch versus branch smack down."
After the hearing, Rep. Bob Roses, a Republican who voted against Palin's signature oil and natural gas proposals, said he doesn't believe the investigation will effect the presidential campaign.
"The main question is, did she lie or didn't she?" he said.
But even if the investigation uncovers evidence that Palin did fire Monegan because he refused to take further action against Wooten, he said, "So what? This is much ado about nothing. She can fire her public safety commissioner for any reason. He's a political appointee."