The Real Story of Troopergate

If you think Palin’s Matalin-Corsi smear-Obama script in the new Runaway Train was a stinker, consider her second, after she fired the Commissioner of Public Safety and failed to get her bad-cop-brother-in-law dismissed. Sent to Alaska to delay or discredit the inquiry, the Republican truth squad made fools of themselves and infuriated Alaskans. It provided an opening for Democrats to play the victims, demand apologies and seek justice for a Public Safety Commissioner who was fired — in part — because Palin was frustrated with a system neither she nor the commissioner could beat.

Buried in the report and lost in the shuffle was a familiar public policy issue: how do those policed get simple justice from a system more protective of police than those it serves?

The real story behind Troopergate is better than the one created by Republicans or Democrats, the Partisan Investigation or Big Bully in the State House, take your pick. The Palins naively believed that, armed with the power and authority of the top state office, she (or her husband) could discover and even change the results of an internal and confidential state trooper process and get a bad cop canned, because the evidence was solid that he was, indeed, a bad cop. The only reason we know he was a bad cop is that he voluntarily opened his own, otherwise confidential, personnel files to the public.

An editorial in the Anchorage Daily News, “He’s No Angel,” spells it out:

Trooper Wooten gave his 10-year-old stepson a “test” firing from his state-issued Taser because the boy wanted to know what it was like. That was astoundingly bad judgment. Because the child “consented,” and the test apparently produced no lasting harm, Wooten would have a good defense against any criminal charges. But it was a hopelessly inappropriate thing for a state trooper to do with state-issued equipment. Trooper Wooten also shot a moose illegally, using his wife’s permit. At the time the incident was investigated, he was a wildlife enforcement officer responsible for enforcing the very same hunting laws he broke. Questioned by troopers about the incident, he said he felt it was not inappropriate, according to the troopers’ disciplinary report.

Trooper Wooten also said he would make his father-in-law “eat a f***-ing? lead bullet” if he helped get a lawyer for his daughter. Apparently that didn’t qualify as “assault” under the law because Wooten did not say it directly to his father-in-law. No crime, but another example that trooper Wooten lacked the judgment and temperament to remain a trooper.

Another disturbing incident from Wooten’s record was the courtesy treatment he got from a fellow trooper during a DUI stop. A bartender had reported Wooten as a suspected drunken driver after Wooten caused a commotion in the bar and drove away. Wooten’s fellow officer stopped him, let him leave his car behind and gave him a ride to his destination. An arrest and conviction for DUI would have ended Wooten’s career as a trooper.

In another incident, Wooten was off duty and drove his patrol car with an open container of alcohol. Witnesses indicate he had been drinking before he got in the patrol car — a finding that trooper Col. Julia Grimes upheld in her review of Wooten’s case. Under normal circumstances, Alaskans and the country wouldn’t know much about Wooten’s record as a trooper. Typically, his infractions and disciplinary record would be confidential as a personnel matter. We’d all be left guessing what he had done that made the Palin family so upset.

Not to excuse the Palins’ persistent queries about why Wooten was still a trooper, but they knew nothing of the disciplinary action that had been taken against him. They didn’t know he had been suspended for five days. They just knew he was still on the force.

However, in one of the more bizarre twists in the case, Wooten himself released his personnel information, perhaps thinking it would vindicate him. On the contrary, most who view his record are left wondering, “If what he did doesn’t get you fired from the troopers, what does it take?”

That’s a good question for the Alaska Legislature to ask.

Palin’s own e-mail to her commissioner echoes the editorial and Wooten’s record, but from a complainant’s perspective: (from the Branchflower report to the Legislative Council)

In sharing a few personal examples with you including the trooper who used to be related to me-the one who intentionally killed the cow moose out of season, without a tag-he’s still bragging about it in my hometown and after another cop confessed to witnessing the kill, this trooper was “investigated” for over a year and merely given a slap on the wrist . . . though he’s out there arresting people today for the same crime! This same trooper who shot his 11-yr-old stepson with a taser gun, was seen drinking in his Patrol car, was pulled over for drunk driving but let off by a coworker & brags about this incident to this day…he threatened to kill his estranged wife’s parent, refused to be transferred to rural Alaska and continued to disparage natives in words and ton, he continues to harass and intimidate his ex.-even after being slapped with a restraining order that was lifted when his supervisors intervened . . . he threatens to always be able to come out on top because he’s ‘got the badge,” etc. etc. etc.) This trooper is still out on the street, in fact he’s been promoted. It was a joke the whole year long “investigation” of him- in fact those who passed along the serious information to … were threatened with legal action from the trooper’s union for speaking about it. (This is the same trooper who’s out there today telling people the new administration is going to destroy the trooper organization, and he’s never work for that b***, Palin”.)

Anyway-just a personal example of what I’ve personally seen out there and had to live with for two years — and this is what people in the Valley are putting up with (those many residents who know of this trooper timebomb who supposed to be “protecting them.)” (Branchflower Report pp.57-58)

The Palin family could not believe that a state trooper who had tasered his step-son, broken the fish and game laws he was charged to enforce and threatened a member of their family would be given a few days suspension in an internal inquiry and not fired. They assumed that a governor with the power to hire and fire their boss could reverse this decision, even if a mere civilian with a complaint against a cop could not. The Palins were wrong.

Legislative Investigator Branchflower did not question Palin’s right to constitutionally dismiss her Commissioner of Public Safety. The Alaska constitution gives Governors extremely broad authority to hire and fire members of their cabinets. The drafters wanted centralized power in a strong governor and not scattered authority, as in territorial days, when the state took on natural resource developers- in those days, the mining and fishing industries. Her legal violation was in use of her power to advance a personal interest, by allowing her husband to pressure employees to get rid of the bad cop.

Alaska personnel rules and state statutes trumped civilian access to the process or any civilian’s ability to find out what happened with her complaint or to get a bad cop canned. Her use of her official authority in her personal quest was the abuse of power cited in the Branchflower Report, even though it got her nowhere

Palin used her very broad constitutional authority to dump the one person who was giving her good advice, Walt Monegan, the public safety commissioner. He warned her that she couldn’t make it happen. He couldn’t either, and he was “the boss”.

Said Monegan: “I was resisting the governor from the very beginning on the Wooten matter to protect her from exactly what just happened to her here, being found to have acted inappropriately.” When Palin fired Monegan, she killed her messenger.

What Palin really needed in her Alaskan movie was a “local Native guide,” from any rural Alaskan native village policed by the troopers. Any village leader could have warned Palin that, in matters of trooper conduct, the employees of the Department of Public Safety take care of their own.

In the vast Alaska bush are hundreds of villages, peopled by the last hunter and gatherers on the continent. They look to official state law enforcement from the Department of Public Safety because they can’t afford their own departments. Troopers usually fly into villages to respond to crime from rural towns. As non-native cities incorporated and, along with bigger rural towns, hired their own police, the Alaska bush and the few state highways became the trooper’s remaining turf which they jealously guard from interlopers. What Palin — and most urban Alaskans — fail to appreciate is that the trooper agency effectively lacks civilian oversight. Its clients in the rural villages are policed by it as it chooses and, unlike the citizens of a town like Wasilla or, at least, its political leadership, they have no control over police behavior and limited authority over abuses.

Hundreds of villages in the Alaska bush (with the exception of rural towns and the North Slope Borough that can afford their own police agencies) are policed by an Agency that they don’t control, a system of legal colonialism over rural Alaska.

The troopers’ immunity from meaningful civilian review may have surprised Palin, her husband and her family, but thousands of Alaska natives knew it already. Colonial-style policing — complete with a cadre of Alaska native para-police, akin to Australia’s Aborigine bush trackers of yesteryear, and modeled on the long abandoned Native police in Canada — have been sustained by urban, non-native Alaskan political leaders of both parties for decades.

The first thing Inuit leader Eban Hopson did with property taxes from the North Slope oil fields, collected by an organized borough after a protracted fight with the state, was set up his own police force for his half dozen villages of the hundreds policed by troopers. The state’s department of law and the troopers retaliated. No cases “made” by these new cops were prosecuted for months, including one by a man who later murdered two non-native campers. You don’t mess with the troopers.

Palin, as Wasilla mayor, fired her town’s police chief. But the mayor of Emmonak, on the mouth of the Yukon River, can’t hire or fire or discipline a trooper. Complaints over the decades from villagers who have attended what Alaskans call bush justice conferences, usually related to non-response from troopers who wait for crime to occur before making an appearance. A suit by the Native American Rights Fund, which argued rural Alaskans got unequal legal protection (note: I was one of NARF’s expert witnesses), failed in state court. The state legislature and governors across party lines give short economic shift to village Alaska, treating villages as the US Congress treats the ghettos of Washington, DC. Institutional racism persists.

Further, some Alaskans have noticed that while the Federal authorities have been busy with prosecutions, the state police and the state department of law has been notably absent in ferreting out corruption among state lawmakers, a kind of live and let live arrangement with those who fund them and otherwise leaves them alone, a longtime arrangement that sacrifices police oversight for institutional independence.

Once Palin was nominated, a Republican strategist, with no knowledge of Alaska, wrote her new script. He or she decided to delay the inquiry by the Alaska legislature into the governor’s firing of her public safety commissioner and its rationale. To delay an Alaskan investigation until after the election must have seemed easy to accomplish. You just sent someone to Alaska to bully the local pols, drawing on Palin’s wild Alaskan popularity. It was a dumb move and one that insulted Alaskans unnecessarily — unless it was calculated to do precisely that. It served the purposes of the oil companies who want Palin and the legislature at each other’s throats. And for the Alaska state troopers, it solidified their status as police left free from interference by those whom they police- and even from those who fund them.

Palin’s husband used his wife’s authority to go after a cop who could and probably would have been fired in an agency still subject to civilian control. Within the Alaska system, blatant personal use of official authority amounted to an ethics violation. Only minorities abused by police with no remedy could appreciate her husband’s frustration with a system non-minorities rarely experience. None of this was part of the Troopergate inquiry.

So what did the Troopergate report recommend to help people frustrated after making complaints about police conduct, even people without the clout of Sarah Palin?

“The legislature should consider amendment of (the statute) to permit those who file complaints against peace officers to receive some feedback about the status and outcome of their complaint.” (Branchflower report 79 of 263). Whoop-De-Doo.

Branchflower says, in part, “When citizens are told no information can be released, it has the potential of engendering skepticism about whether the complaint was taken seriously. There is likewise a great potential that the confidence we need to have in our law enforcement agencies will be undermined, and respect for those institutions will be eroded.” (Branchflower 80-18). As in Alaska native villages and the Governor’s mansion?

The Palins had a story to tell, one that was buried in the legislative investigation and one that ordinary people — especially minorities — could relate to, about bad cops and the inability of ordinary citizens (and, apparently, even Governor’s) to get justice when they complain about them or even try to find out if anything happened with their complaints. That the Republican operatives who counseled delay and sought to smear the investigation as purely partisan did not see a better script in Troopergate about a family with a legitimate grievance against a cop and a police organization, shows us how far removed Republicans are from the working class voters and the minorities they seek to persuade.

Steve Conn is a retired professor of justice at the University of Alaska, and former director of Alaska Public Interest Research Group. He lived in Alaska from 1972 to 2007 and now lives in Point Roberts, Washington. He recently helped collect more than 5,900 signatures from Alaskan voters to put Ralph Nader on the 2008 Alaska Presidential ballot. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Steve, or visit Steve's website.

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  1. Danny Ray said on October 17th, 2008 at 7:23pm #

    I am sure that you and I are on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to Gov. Pallin. But I would like to to thank you for taking the time and looking upthe facts about troopergate. The problem with almost all elections is the handlers. you really never know what you are getting, the handlers just want to tell the people what they THINK they want to hear.

    Thank you