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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Vendetta row can’t hold Sarah Palin back

As a former senior adviser to Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, John Bitney helped America’s newest political celebrity throughout her successful 2006 election campaign, became the spokesman for her incoming administration and was ultimately named her chief liaison to the Alaskan legislature.

Bitney grew up with Palin, played in a high school band with her and, like many other Alaskans, was awed by her rapid rise from a moose-infested rural backwater to the pinnacle of power in her state.

He was one of her oldest and most loyal friends but when Palin abruptly sacked Bitney in July last year, she somehow failed to tell him. The first he learnt of it was when his state-issued mobile phone stopped working as he was driving to his office. He used another phone to check in and discovered that his name had been removed from the state employee directory.

His offence, according to senior Republican sources in Anchorage, was to fall foul of Palin’s 43-year-old husband, Todd. It was an early sign that the self-styled “first dude” of Alaskan politics was playing an unexpectedly prominent role in his wife’s administration.

As Palin took America by storm last week, with Republicans swooning over her irresistible Cinderella story, her blue-collar husband appeared to be adapting naturally to the role of supportive spouse and proud father of their five children – among them Bristol, 17, an unmarried mother-to-be who early next year is due to present them with their first grandchild.

Todd’s story has become part of the rapidly expanding Palin legend. He is part Eskimo, runs a summer fishing business and has won Alaska’s most gruelling snowmobile race – the 1,971-mile Tesoro Iron Dog – four times. Last year he hit a metal drum at 60mph, was thrown 70ft and broke an arm on landing. He climbed back on and finished fourth.

Yet Palin’s surprise addition to the Republican presidential ticket has triggered mounting scrutiny of Todd’s largely unpublicised role in a series of acrimonious disputes that threaten to belie the wholesome, friendly image of the woman known here as “Wasilla’s sweetheart”.

“He has become a kind of shadow governor,” noted Andrew Halcro, a Republican businessman running as an independent who was trounced by Palin in the 2006 governor’s election. “We need to get the facts about how power is being used in the governor’s office.”

Halcro told The Sunday Times that over the past 20 months, confidential e-mails sent by the governor and other officials had been routinely copied to Todd; and that other senior Republicans were stunned that John McCain’s advisers had made no serious attempt to investigate Todd’s role in other controversies before his wife was put on the ticket. “They did no vetting, and some of these issues are not going away,” Halcro said.

Bitney now works for another senior Alaskan Republican and would not comment on Palin last week. However, his former colleagues believe he incurred Todd’s wrath because he became romantically involved with the ex-wife of one of the “first dude’s” friends. Bitney once told colleagues: “Todd’s words have so much weight.”

A similarly murky family matter is at the root of Palin’s biggest problem, which has already become known as Troopergate. Initially a private squabble spawned by the collapsing marriage of Sarah Palin’s sister, Molly, this bizarre tale of love turned bad has dragged in half the Alaskan government, cost the state’s public safety commissioner his job, wasted tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and raised serious questions about Palin’s judgment.

Despite strenuous efforts by the McCain campaign to dismiss the affair as media trouble-making, documents obtained by The Sunday Times last week laid bare a poisonous vendetta. They show that Palin and her husband went to remarkable lengths to portray her former brother-in-law, Michael Wooten, an Alaska state trooper, as “a ticking timebomb” and a “loose cannon”.

After Wooten and Molly separated in 2005 and began a bitter child custody battle, Palin wrote a startling three-page e-mail to Colonel Julia Grimes, then head of the state police force, denouncing her brother-in-law for everything from threatening to murder her father – “Wooten’s words were: ‘I’ll kill him. He’ll eat a f****** lead bullet’ ” – to driving on duty while drunk; using a stun gun on his 11-year-old stepson; shooting a moose without a permit; failing to pay a $5 fine for improper rubbish disposal; and using illegal steroids. “ Wooten is my brother-in-law, but this information is forwarded to you objectively,” wrote Palin, who at the time was still considering a run for governor the next year.

After an internal inquiry, Grimes concluded in March 2006 that Wooten was guilty of “unacceptable and at times illegal activity”. His punishment was merely a 10-day suspension – later reduced after a union appeal to five days – and a warning that he would be dismissed if he offended again.

Had the matter rested there, there would have been no Alaskan Troopergate. When she wrote the 2005 e-mail, Palin was a private citizen who had resigned as Alaska’s chief oil and gas industry watchdog and who had yet to commit herself to a campaign for governor. Yet even after she was elected governor, the vendetta continued.

Less than a month after his wife took office, Todd Palin visited Walter Monegan, Alaska’s public safety commissioner, and presented him with a new dossier on Wooten’s alleged wrongdoings, compiled with the help of a private investigator hired by the Palin family.

Monegan warned that Wooten had already been subject to disciplinary proceedings and that sacking him would amount to political interference in a judicial process. Over the next year the governor and several of her aides complained repeatedly that nothing was being done about Wooten, who remains a state trooper and who denied this weekend that he had been drunk on duty and that he had threatened to kill Palin’s father.

When Palin eventually fired Monegan last July, ostensibly because of budgetary differences, she triggered a formal state ethics investigation to establish whether the commissioner was being punished for the Wooten affair. Monegan has since questioned publicly whether the Palins’ pursuit of Wooten “was truly motivated by public safety concerns, or was it vindictiveness?”

Last week Palin’s spokeswoman insisted that Todd had simply sought to “inform” Monegan about the Wooten case and that the governor was “rightly expressing concern” about the trooper’s behaviour.

For many Alaskans, the Troopergate saga is no more than a petty distraction that Palin’s enemies are inflating to hurt her. Yet even Republicans who wish their governor well are nervous that the affair will not easily go away.

Halcro has long since recovered from his 2006 election thumping. He has come to like and admire Palin, and openly acknowledges her uncanny ability to connect with voters.

“My first thought about her [during the 2006 campaign] was that she was totally unqualified,” he said. “She had no grasp of public policy but there’s no doubt she was very likable.”

When he watched Palin mesmerise the Republican convention last week, Halcro said he felt proud to be Alaskan. “It was hard to sit in my living room and not feel tingles all over.”

Yet Halcro admitted he was also concerned by signs that Palin is neither the sweetheart that America has embraced, nor a candidate who can comfortably withstand the pressure of a national presidential campaign.

“You want to get excited by all this vice-president fuss: yes, it’s fabulous for Alaska,” he said. “But there’s this voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is the White House we’re talking about. She’s got to stop stretching the truth’.”

Palin’s problem is that Troopergate is far from an isolated affair. As a sharp-elbowed high school basketball player, she acquired the nickname Barracuda and she has been displaying a ruthless streak ever since.

“At the first sign of disloyalty, she’ll throw you under the bus,” said Halcro. “Once you cross her, you’re off the list for ever,” warned Hollis French, a Democratic state senator.

As the newly elected 32-year-old mayor of Wasilla in 1996, Palin lost no time in dumping city employees who had supported her opponent. She fired the public works director, the city planner, the museum director and the chief of police, Irl Stambaugh, who filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful dismissal.

There was another row over her treatment of Mary Ellen Emmons, the town librarian, who reacted scornfully when Palin raised the possibility that certain unnamed books should be banned from the library. Emmons was sacked but reinstated after protests.

Todd Palin’s role in all of this remains a topic of intense speculation among his wife’s political rivals. Curiosity about the governor’s marriage was also fanned last week by a report in the National Enquirer that Sarah Palin had once had an affair with her husband’s partner in a snowmobile business that has since been wound up. The McCain campaign has denounced the allegations as a “vicious lie”.

Nor have the Palins dispelled internet speculation about their fifth child, Trig, who was born last April with Down’s syndrome. Reports that Palin may not have been Trig’s mother have been widely discredited but questions continue to be asked about the governor’s behaviour on the day Trig was born.

Visiting Dallas for an energy conference, Palin experienced minor contractions and her amniotic fluid started leaking. Yet the 44-year-old governor boarded an eight-hour flight back to Anchorage without informing the crew that she was eight months pregnant. Her baby was born eight hours after her arrival.

As the campaign unfolds over the next two months, the Palins are certain to experience hostile scrutiny unlike any they have endured in Sarah-friendly Alaska. Halcro, among others, wonders if she will prove up to it.

“She’s not big on constructive criticism,” he said. “She’s got a fairly thin skin and I don’t know how she’ll handle the day-to-day questions on the campaign trail far from home. This could get kind of ugly.”

THE E-MAIL POINTING THE FINGER

An e-mail entitled “Trooper Integrity, Character” sent by Sarah Palin to the commander of Alaskan state police on August 10, 2005, lists the supposed defects of Michael Wooten, a state trooper and then her brother-in-law. It says: “Wooten drinks excessively and has showed extremely poor judgment and disregard for others’ safety with his practice of drinking and driving, including on Jan 19 2005 drove home drunk; Jan 23 2005 drove home drunk after Super Bowl party in Anchorage; Feb 6 2005 in Anchorage leaving pro wrestling event very drunk as he drunk beer straight from the bottle . . . Feb 13 drove drunk in Big Lake . . . next day so hungover had to call in sick . . . March 13 drank at least three beers in car . . . scaring wife and kids who begged him to stop . . . left a friend’s home in his Trooper car, waving with beer in hand . . . I forward this information to you objectively.”

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