Panel: Palin abused power

— -- Sarah Palin unlawfully abused her power as governor by trying to have her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper, the chief investigator of an Alaska legislative panel concluded Friday.

Investigator Stephen Branchflower, in a report by the panel that investigated the matter, found Palin in violation of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Actstate, which prohibits public officials from using their office for personal gain.

The bipartisan, joint committee of state lawmakers hired former prosecutor Branchflower in July to investigate whether Palin's dismissal earlier that month of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan was improper.

Palin's husband, Todd, and aides to the governor had talked to Monegan about state trooper Mike Wooten, who had divorced the governor's sister and, according to the Palins, threatened the governor's family.

Palin's campaign sought to limit any potential fallout from the report by releasing a 21-page statement Thursday saying the legislative investigation had "questionable origins" and was "politically driven."

Monegan has said he felt pressured to fire Wooten, who denies threatening the Palins. The campaign's Thursday statement said Palin fired Monegan because he "proved unable to follow the policies of the Palin administration and pressed his own agenda without regard for the formal budgeting process." The statement says that as governor, Palin had the authority to fire Monegan for any reason.

The report found that Palin let the family grudge influence her decision-making even if it was not the sole reason Monegan was dismissed. "I feel vindicated," Monegan said. "It sounds like they've validated my belief and opinions. And that tells me I'm not totally out in left field."

The panel of lawmakers voted to release the report, although not without dissension. There was no immediate vote on whether to endorse its findings.

"I think there are some problems in this report," said Republican state Sen. Gary Stevens, a member of the panel. "I would encourage people to be very cautious, to look at this with a jaundiced eye."

The nearly 300-page report does not recommend sanctions or a criminal investigation.

The investigation revealed that Palin's husband, Todd, has extraordinary access to the governor's office and her closest advisers. He used that access to try to get trooper Mike Wooten fired, the report found.

Branchflower faulted Sarah Palin for taking no action to stop that. He also noted there is evidence the governor herself participated in the effort.

Palin had said she would cooperate fully with the investigation before GOP presidential nominee John McCain named her is running mate in August. Palin later declined to talk with Branchflower. Todd Palin and several of the governor's aides answered written questions after initially objecting to subpoenas.

The Alaska Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a lawsuit by six Republican state lawmakers who sought to block the Branchflower investigation. State Attorney General Talis Colberg, a Palin appointee, also had unsuccessfully challenged the probe, arguing that the legislature didn't have the authority to investigate the governor's personnel decisions.

Republican critics of the Legislative Council, the joint panel which ordered the probe, point to the lawmaker named to oversee the investigation as evidence of partisan bias: Hollis French, a Democrat who chairs the state Senate's Judiciary Committee. French said last month the results of the probe might be a damaging "October surprise" for the McCain-Palin campaign. French later apologized for the remarks.

Palin's statement said French's remarks proved that Palin "could no longer hope that the inquiry was to be the non-political investigation promised."

Although denying that Monegan's firing had anything to do with Wooten, Palin's statement also details her concerns about her former brother-in-law. The statement notes that Wooten had been disciplined in 2006, before Palin's election, for illegally shooting a moose, drinking beer while driving his marked patrol car and using a Taser on his 10-year-old stepson.

Wooten has denied the drinking and driving allegation and said he used the stun gun on a low setting on his stepson because the boy asked for a demonstration.

The campaign's statement says Todd Palin and members of the governor's staff were justified in telling Monegan about their concerns about Wooten.

"The Palins make no apologies for wanting to protect their family and wanting to bring attention to the injustice of a violent trooper keeping his badge," the statement says.