The Alaska Senate confronted Gov. Sarah Palin on Friday over her resistance to Legislative subpoenas in the Troopergate investigation with a mild rebuke for her husband and some of her staff. The resolution was drafted behind the scenes, catching many lawmakers and Palin supporters off guard.
A resolution, which passed in a 16-1 vote, found 10 witnesses in contempt after they balked at testifying before a legislative investigator, but no penalties were issued.
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, brought a resolution containing the contempt finding Friday morning in a surprise move. Those found in contempt were given no opportunity to defend themselves, but they were not penalized either.
French is chairman of the Senate Judiciary, which the Legislature designated to supervise the investigation into the scandal, dubbed Troopergate.
The public and Palin’s Senate supporters were not made aware of the contempt resolution before the Senate took it up Friday morning.
The Legislature’s investigation found Palin had the power to fire Department of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, but that Palin had done so partly for personal reasons and she abused her power when doing so.
Palin had originally pledged to cooperate with the Legislative investigation, but after she began running for vice-president she reversed course and Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg tried to block the investigation in court.
“The subpoenas were lawful, and the subpoenas were disobeyed,” French said.
The attorney general’s suit was “tossed out of court on its ear,” French said, but the Senate needed to take action to show subpoenas cannot be ignored. The fact that those subpoenaed later provided written statements was a mitigating factor, and was the reason for the lack of penalties, he said.
The resolution “shows the Senate at its best,” he said.
Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, the lone member of the Senate Republican Minority in attendance, was the only member besides French to comment.
“Rehash an old issue and then decide not to do anything about it – I hope that’s not the Senate at its best,” Bunde said.
Palin’s Senate opponents worked behind the scenes to avoid letting the public know the resolution was coming, but still operated within the requirements of the Alaska Public Meetings Law.
The resolution, drafted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was never taken up by the committee in a meeting. Instead, French contacted committee members individually to ascertain their support.
The only minority committee member not contacted was Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole. He’s not a member of the Senate Bipartisan Working Group coalition headed by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, but is frequently a Palin ally.
“They gave no warning to us, and they gave no warning to many of their own members,” Therriault said by phone from Fairbanks. Two other minority members, Sens. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River and Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, were absent as well.
The topic was not listed on the meeting’s agenda, but French said he gave the resolution to Stevens the night before.
The Senate Calendar listed only citations, such as one honoring the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, on the day’s agenda.
The state’s own guidance for conducting public meetings says “do not add controversial issues to the agenda at the last minute.”
Therriault said how the Senate handled the issue wasn’t fair to those accused of failing to comply.
He has accused the Legislature itself of biasing the process against the Palin administration.
“There’s no shortage of problems with the process,” he said. “Now, making this kind of allegation about state employees without them being able to respond before (legislators) are being asked to vote, makes a sham of the process.”
The resolution names Todd Palin, the governor’s husband, Randy Ruaro, Palin’s deputy chief of staff, and Ivy Frye, another staff member, as having failed to appear in response to subpoenas.
Palin staff members Annette Kreitzer, Dianne Kiesel, Nicki Neal, Brad Thompson, Michael Nizich, Kris Perry and Janice Mason were named as having agreed through an attorney to appear without subpoenas being served, but did not.
Attorney Thomas Van Flein, who represented Todd Palin, contends that his client went through the proper channels in objecting to the subpoenas before finally complying with a written statement.
“They didn’t allow any opportunity to present actual evidence and facts. It appears to be pure political grandstanding,” he told The Associated Press.
French said that a mitigating factor that led away from proposing penalties for individuals was that those whose testimonies were sought eventually responded in writing, after a court ruling in the Legislature’s favor. State law does outline possible fines and jail time for such offenses.