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Palin launches Monegan inquiry ahead of special investigation

Governor wants to know what Branchflower will find

Gov. Sarah Palin is trying to find out what the Legislature's special investigator might discover as he probes her controversial firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.

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Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg has launched an inquiry at the governor's request, including interviews with state public safety officials. The attorney general's involvement has started before the special investigator newly hired by the Legislature, Steve Branchflower, has had a chance to dive into his work.

Colberg said his office's review began after state Sen. Hollis French was quoted in The Wall Street Journal about two weeks ago saying the governor could be impeached as a result of the probe. That raised questions about how impartial the Legislature's investigation was going to be, according to the governor's office.

"The governor, I think, was looking for what this meant when Sen. French was making the statements he did," Colberg said Tuesday. "And we were trying to give her a better idea of what this could possibly mean. So we're just trying to do a prudent inquiry to cover her options."

But critics of the governor -- although not French himself -- have raised the specter of "witness tampering." Some legislators said it doesn't look good for the attorney general to get involved.

"I think it is harmful to the credibility of the administration, harmful to the process and harmful to all the parties involved," said Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jay Ramras, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. "It's just the worst possible thing to be doing."

Ramras said Colberg is honest but might be naïve. He needs to be very careful to avoid his review having any appearance of tampering with witnesses, Ramras said.

LEGISLATIVE INVESTIGATOR

The Legislature has hired Steve Branchflower, a retired state prosecutor, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the Monegan firing. That includes looking at accusations that Palin, her aides and her husband had pressured Monegan to fire a state trooper who went through a divorce with the governor's sister.

The governor's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, referred questions about the Department of Law review to Colberg.

Palin denies wrongdoing and initially said she welcomed the Legislature's investigation. But the governor subsequently questioned how fair the probe would be after French, who will supervise Branchflower's work, raised the possibility of impeachment in the Wall Street Journal story published on July 30.

"Even before he named an investigator he went to the national media with a fairly serious concept. So we began an internal review," Colberg said.

COMMENT OMITTED

French said he told the newspaper that nothing might come of the investigation or -- in a worst case scenario -- it could lead to impeachment proceedings. The paper didn't use his comment that nothing might come of the investigation, French said, and now the Palin administration is blowing it out of proportion.

"I think they are overreacting, but that's fine," he said.

French said he's never discussed the impeachment comment with Palin or her aides. He said he didn't have a problem with the attorney general getting involved.

"My view is that they are perfectly free to try to ascertain for themselves what happened," said French, a former prosecutor. "Until I learn otherwise I'm going to assume that it's on the up and up."

Colberg said the attorney general's office has interviewed "several people" about the Monegan issue, including two employees of the department of public safety. He declined to say who was interviewed but said no one was put under oath.

The attorney general's office began gathering documents at the end of July and started interviews on Aug. 4. Two days later the Legislature's investigator, Branchflower, wrote the governor's office asking for any documents, e-mails, phone messages, etc., related to Monegan's firing. Branchflower also wanted the names of anyone who might have information about it.

"So the investigator himself actually asked us to do the very type of thing we were doing. We were doing it before he asked for it but it's not inconsistent," Colberg said.

The attorney general's involvement in the Monegan controversy stirred up Anchorage talk radio Tuesday. Andrew Halcro, a former state legislator who lost to Palin in the 2006 governor's race, also featured it on his blog, suggesting possible witness tampering and noting that Branchflower's letter doesn't ask the attorney general to go out and interview public safety department officials.

John Cyr, executive director of the union that represents state troopers, charged "it's an abuse of her office" for Palin to involve the attorney general.

Colberg said the inquiry is to give the governor an idea of why French or others might think they have some basis to bring up something as serious as impeachment. He said he didn't know how long his office would continue its inquiry.

"We're committed to trying to cooperate as best as we can (with Branchflower) and try to determine what it is that's happened," Colberg said.


Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

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