Palin Falls into Legal Debt Fighting Ethics Charges

By RACHEL D'ORO
|  Sunday, Jun 21, 2009  |  Updated 8:15 PM EDT
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Even some of Palin's critics question the validity of some of the complaints, and her supporters have waged a weeklong Webathon to raise money for a legal defense fund set up for the governor.

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ANCHORAGE, AlaskaAlaska Gov. Sarah Palin says her political enemies are abusing state law with a flurry of frivolous ethics complaints against her, putting her more than $500,000 in legal debt.

Those filing the grievances — there have been at least 18 cases so far — say it's their legal right to hold the Republican governor accountable for what they see as abuses of power.

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

"Are Alaskans outraged, or at least tired of this yet — another frivolous ethics charge by a political blogger?" Palin asked in one statement.

Most of the complaints have been filed since last August, when GOP presidential candidate John McCain picked Palin as his running mate. And most have been denied.

Palin's office has called the multiple dismissals "mounting evidence that accusations of wrongdoing by the governor lack merit and have been politically or personally motivated."

Even some of Palin's critics question the validity of some of the complaints, and her supporters have waged a weeklong Webathon to raise money for a legal defense fund set up for the governor, ringing up more than $109,000 by day seven, Sunday.

But the number of filings may also reflect a broader awareness of ethics law in Alaska, where any citizen can send in any number of complaints. Some say they're taking Palin up on her own challenge to Alaska voters.

"She said she was going to be open, transparent and wanted people to hold her accountable," said Kim Chatman, an Eagle River resident whose complaint against Palin is among the few still pending. "I took her for her word."

All the complaints have been brought by Alaskans, except for one filed by Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics alleging the $150,000-plus designer wardrobe the Republican Party bought to outfit Palin in her national quest violated the Federal Election Campaign Act. That complaint was dismissed.

One complaint, in which the Alaska Personnel Board found no wrongdoing, concluded with the governor agreeing to pay the state $10,000 for trips taken by her children — money that is due Tuesday.

Another complaint, filed by Democratic blogger Linda Kellen Biegel, said Palin wore a jacket that promoted the sponsor of her husband's snowmobile racing team. That complaint, dismissed June 2, prompted Palin's statement about "frivolous" ethics charges.

Elected in 2006, Palin enjoyed an unprecedented 18-month honeymoon with Alaska residents and lawmakers alike until last July, when she fired Walt Monegan, the state's popular public safety commissioner.

Monegan believed he was terminated over his refusal to let go a state trooper who was involved in a contentious divorce with Palin's sister. Palin cited budgetary disagreements.

State lawmakers investigated, ultimately concluding the governor broke an ethics law that prohibits public officials from using their office for personal gain, although the firing itself was considered lawful since Monegan was an at-will employee.

Days after being named McCain's running mate, Palin said the legislative probe had become too political and filed a "self disclosure" with the Alaska Personnel Board, whose three members are appointed by the governor. The day before the presidential election, that investigation concluded that Palin violated no ethics laws.

Palin was wrong to publicly criticize the complaints before the appropriate government body — the personnel board in most cases — had a chance to analyze them, said Gregg Erickson, a Juneau economist and longtime watcher of Alaska politics. That's simply bad politics, he said.

"She rises to the bait fairly quickly when they troll these things by her," he said. "I think it's a weakness."

Chatman said she voted for Palin to be governor, but now sees her as unethical, sacrificing the state's interest to advance her national ambitions. Palin is widely believed to be considering a 2012 presidential run.

Chatman's complaint alleges Palin is misusing the governor's office for personal gain by securing unwarranted benefits and receiving improper gifts through the Alaska Fund Trust, which was established by supporters in April to help Palin pay her legal bills.

Alaska law mandates that ethics grievances remain confidential unless a public accusation is filed or the accused person agrees in writing to make it public. However, most complainants have ignored this requirement and have publicly discussed their grievances without any legal consequences.

"Why is confidentiality so important? So the process does not become a forum for partisan attacks, headline seekers and disgruntled wing-nuts," Palin attorney Thomas Van Flein said in an e-mail. "This is exactly the type of political gamesmanship the confidentiality clause was intended to prevent."

Chatman said she spoke with an attorney and learned she wouldn't breach confidentiality if she talked about her grievance before filing it in late April. She said she did just that, based on a lack of trust in the Palin administration.

"I thought it would be swept under the carpet if the public didn't know about it," she said.

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