Half-Baked Alaska

Laura McGann has written a really excellent primer on Alaska’s eccentric, corrupt politics for The American Prospect. As far as I can tell, Palin comes out looking clean as a whistle, though this conclusion is only reached begrudgingly.

Palin is a member of the same Republican Party as those ensnared in a corrupt web, but somehow she seems like a completely different political animal. Palin moved into the governor’s mansion in 2006 on a platform of reform and change, having developed a reputation as a whistleblower after calling out the chair of the state GOP and the state’s Republican attorney general on ethics grounds. The answers I received show a candidate who staked her political fortunes on her claims of being a maverick. But while she has avoided some of the worst entanglements of petroleum industry bribery, her fierce sense of family loyalty has landed her in her own hot water.

After noting that Palin challenged the powerful oil interests that dominate Alaska, McGann draws a slightly eccentric comparison between a corrupt oil baron and Palin’s minor-key version of “Troopergate.”

Palin’s problem, though, is not money. In fact, she raised taxes on oil companies in 2007. It was the first of such hikes in the state since 1989. Believe it or not, her troubles look more like Bill Allen’s — the Veco executive who pleaded guilty to bribing state officials. Allen has framed his actions as attempts to do the best thing for his family business. If bending — or breaking — the law was necessary to get the company ahead, he did it. For Allen, Veco and family were interchangeable. His devotion to both was the root of his problem and his downfall.

Palin’s devotion to her own family has landed her in trouble with the state Legislature. A special investigator is looking into whether Palin fired her public-safety commissioner when he wouldn’t oust a state trooper over a longtime family feud. The state trooper, Jim Wooten, was involved in a bitter divorce with Palin’s sister. He was admonished after the Palins filed official complaints, though not fired. Palin revisited the issue when she took office, the safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, claims. Though the full report is not due for three weeks, e-mails from Palin and a tape recording reveal that the governor at least pressured the commissioner to fire Wooten, after she previously denied having done so.

Palin has supposedly tried to stall the investigation, and McGann writes,

Palin’s stall is a serious step away from transparency in the direction of the state’s corrupt lawmakers. Considering her path to power, Palin should know that Alaskans’ toleration of corruption has seriously diminished.

But of course, there is a real and obvious distinction to be drawn between self-dealing financial deals and the Wooten case. As McGann notes earlier in the piece, Alaskan corruption is rooted in the state’s extraction economy — something Alaska has in common with, say, Nigeria, but not Norway. The Wooten case is something you’ll find in virtually any political environment. So the effort to draw these strands together seems like a stretch. This is not to say that the charges against Palin aren’t serious. Far from it. But it is important to note that the Wooten case does not imply that Palin is part of Alaska’s culture of corruption. Rather, it implies that she might have been overzealous in going after a state employee she knew to be an abusive lout — perhaps she should be punished for this somehow, but note how politically important it is to collapse these distinctions.

Josh Marshall insists at great length that the Wooten case reflects a dangerous abuse of power.

Eventually, Palin got fed up and fired Monegan from his job. (Palin claims, not credibly, that she fired Monegan over general differences in law enforcement priorities.) This is an important point. Wooten never got fired. To the best of my knowledge, he’s is still on the job. The central bad act was firing the state’s top police official because he refused to bend to political pressure from the governor and her family to fire a public employee against whom the governor was pursuing a vendetta — whether the vendetta was justified or not.

This is interesting. In an otherwise fairly detailed post, we’re never told exactly why Palin’s claim is “not credible.” Considering that Wooten was never fired — an obvious sign of a quid pro quo — you have to wonder if Palin did sincerely believe that there was a better candidate for the job.

For what it’s worth, I see nothing wrong with investigating this further — it clearly helps the McCain-Palin ticket politically, but that’s not why: Palin should give some accounting of why Monegan was fired. I’ll bet she had a good reason. Having made one error in judgment — raising the issue of Wooten’s employment in the first place — is no reason to make another, namely keeping Monegan in the job if he was not up to the task in Palin’s considered judgment.