Eleven years before the current investigation into her dismissal of Alaska's top cop, Sarah Palin was embroiled in a similar dispute over another personnel issue: her firing of the police chief in her hometown of Wasilla. Palin's decision to terminate Irl Stambaugh, months after she was elected mayor in 1996, created a ruckus. It also led to a bitter and protracted lawsuit charging that she fired Stambaugh out of pique—in part because he'd crossed the interests of influential backers, including bar owners and gun enthusiasts who'd contributed significantly to Palin's campaign, according to court and state records reviewed by NEWSWEEK. Palin denied these allegations under oath, and ultimately prevailed, after a federal judge concluded that the mayor had the right to fire any department head she wanted. Palin "made the decision ... because the people of Wasilla had elected her to reform Wasilla's government and he actively worked to frustrate those efforts," says Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the McCain-Palin campaign.
But the dispute is now getting renewed scrutiny in light of a number of other controversial personnel moves by the GOP veep nominee, including her firing of the Wasilla librarian (she was later reinstated) and Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, whose dismissal last summer prompted the investigation, dubbed "Troopergate," by Alaska's legislature. (Monegan alleged he was fired because he resisted pressure from Palin and aides to can a state trooper involved in a messy custody battle with Palin's sister. A state panel last week voted to subpoena 13 members of Palin's administration in the probe, as well as her husband.)
Stambaugh, a former Anchorage police captain who once supervised Monegan, was hired as Wasilla's first police chief in 1993 and created the town's small police force, says former Wasilla mayor John Stein. But weeks after Palin beat Stein in 1996, she expressed displeasure with the chief. One big issue, Stambaugh said, was that he and other police chiefs had opposed a state-legislature bill to permit concealed weapons in schools and bars, which Stambaugh called "craziness." But Palin, elected with backing from the National Rifle Association, which lobbied for the bill, told him she was "not happy" with his position, and that the NRA wanted him fired, says Stambaugh. Palin told him he "shouldn't have done that," Stambaugh told NEWSWEEK. (Palin denied in a deposition that the NRA contacted her about the weapons bill.)
An even bigger clash involved a proposed city ordinance backed by Stambaugh to close the town bars at 2 a.m. instead of 5. Stambaugh says he believed this would help curb late-night drunken driving at a time when, according to Stein, the former mayor, "people were driving out from Anchorage to the valley for more alcohol and crashing." But Palin, as a council member, had voted against the measure—making her the favored candidate among bar owners, one of whom held a fund-raiser for her. Records obtained by NEWSWEEK show that Wasilla bar owners contributed $1,250 to her mayoral campaign—more than 10 percent of all the money she raised in 1996. Griffin did not respond to requests for comment on those contributions.
Stambaugh says it was only after clashing with Palin on these and another issue, involving efforts to restrain a "poker run" game enjoyed by snowmobile drivers where they play a hand at each bar, that he was fired. John Cramer, the city administrator hired by Palin, acknowledges that personal and political antagonisms may have played a role. Stambaugh, who backed Stein openly in the 1996 race, showed the new mayor little deference. At one meeting of town officials, Cramer says he heard him tell Palin: "Little lady, if you think you have our respect, you don't. You have to earn it." (Stambaugh denies making the comment.) Stambaugh filed suit, alleging breach of contract and civil-rights violations. In the course of the lawsuit, Palin filed an affidavit complaining that Wasilla cops had done an unauthorized state police check on her and her husband—which appears to have foreshadowed her later uneasy relationship with law enforcement. (Earlier this year, Palin told aides she no longer wanted the standard detail of six troopers assigned to protect Alaskan governors.) A federal judge ultimately tossed the case, on legal grounds, and ordered Stambaugh to pay $22,000 of Palin's legal fees—proof, according to Griffin, that the case was "frivolous." Stambaugh says his dispute should be looked at in the context of others involving Palin. "It's not just me," he says. "It's Monegan, it's the librarian. The list goes on and on. She believes she can fire people for whatever reasons she wants." In Stambaugh's case, a judge ruled she could do just that.