An Anchorage judge three years ago warned Sarah Palin and members of her family to stop "disparaging" the reputation of Alaska State Trooper Michael Wooten, who at the time was undergoing a bitter separation and divorce from Palin's sister Molly.
Allegations that Palin, her husband Todd, and at least one top gubernatorial aide continued to vilify Wooten—after Palin became Alaska's governor and pressured state police officials to take action against him—are at the center of "Troopergate," a political and ethical controversy which has embroiled Palin's administration and is currently the subject of an official inquiry by a special investigator hired by the state legislature.
Court records obtained by NEWSWEEK show that during the course of divorce hearings three years ago, Judge John Suddock heard testimony from an official of the Alaska State Troopers' union about how Sarah Palin—then a private citizen—and members of her family, including her father and daughter, lodged up to a dozen complaints against Wooten with the state police. The union official told the judge that he had never before been asked to appear as a divorce-case witness, that the union believed family complaints against Wooten were "not job-related," and that Wooten was being "harassed" by Palin and other family members.
Court documents show that Judge Suddock was disturbed by the alleged attacks by Palin and her family members on Wooten's behavior and character. "Disparaging will not be tolerated—it is a form of child abuse," the judge told a settlement hearing in October 2005, according to typed notes of the proceedings. The judge added: "Relatives cannot disparage either. If occurs [sic] the parent needs to set boundaries for their relatives."
A spokesperson for the law firm that represented Palin's sister, now known as Molly Hackett, said Hackett's lawyer would have no comment because custody issues are still in litigation. Other lawyers representing Sarah Palin in connection with the state legislative investigation—which is examining whether she abused her powers as governor in trying to have Wooten fired or disciplined—had no immediate comment. Palin's official gubernatorial spokeswoman did not respond to e-mails and a phone message requesting comment.
Wooten's lawyer also did not respond to messages requesting comment. John Cyr, executive director of the State Troopers union, who testified at the divorce hearing and is acting as Wooten's spokesman, said Wooten has avoided giving media interviews because he wants to avoid criticizing his former relatives (to date, Wooten has granted just one interview, to CNN).
As the divorce case dragged on, the judge's concern about family "disparagement" appeared to deepen. In an order signed Jan. 31, 2006, which granted Palin's sister and Wooten a final divorce decree, Judge Suddock continued to express concern about attacks by Palin's family on Wooten. The judge even threatened to curb Palin's sister's child custody rights if family criticism of Wooten continued.
In monitoring how a joint-custody arrangement worked out, the judge said in his order that he would pay particular attention to problems noted by a "custody investigator," specifically "the disparagement of the father [Wooten] by the mother [Molly Hackett, Sarah Palin's sister] and her family members."
"It is the mother's [Hackett's] responsibility to set boundaries for her relatives and insure [sic] they respect them, and the disparagement by either parent, or their surrogates is emotional child abuse," Judge Suddock wrote. He added that: "If the court finds it is necessary due to disparagement in the Mat-Su Valley [the area north of Anchorage where Palin and her extended family live], for the children's best interests, it [the court] will not hesitate to order custody to the father and a move into Anchorage." Cyr, the union official, said that to his knowledge, no such move was ever ordered.
The "Troopergate" special investigator, former prosecutor Steve Branchflower, was hired by a unanimous vote of state legislative leaders. His mission: to investigate whether Palin fired Walter Monegan—her State Public Safety Commissioner (and the official in charge of the State Police)—when he refused to dismiss or open a new disciplinary investigation of Wooten after receiving complaints about him from Gov. Palin and her husband Todd. Initially, Palin indicated she would cooperate with the investigation. But more recently, a lawyer hired by the state to represent her in the case asked the Alaska Attorney General to request that a state personnel board conduct its own special-counsel inquiry and demanded that the state legislature back off.
At the heart of the continuing "Troopergate" flap is evidence that despite Judge Suddock's warnings back in 2005 and 2006, Palin and her husband continued to make disparaging allegations against Wooten, even after she went to the statehouse. During her first security briefing with a representative of the state police, Palin and Todd were both asked whether they knew of any potential physical threats against them, according to a deposition taken from one of Palin's top aides following her election in Nov. 2006. Both said the only threat they were aware of was posed by Wooten.
The Palins later raised allegations about Wooten with public-safety chief Monegan, according to an account Monegan gave to The Washington Post. Last February, a top Palin gubernatorial aide named Frank Bailey criticized Wooten in detail in a conversation with another senior state-police official. Bailey repeated previous charges made by the Palins against the trooper—including allegations that he had Tasered his stepson; driven a cop car while holding a beer; and shot a moose without a permit (charges which resulted in his suspension for five days without pay as a trooper). But Bailey also made a new allegation: that Wooten might have submitted a questionable workers' compensation claim. The state police recorded Bailey's conversation, and Palin later released it after Monegan's sacking.
Palin and Bailey both said that Palin did not instigate Bailey's complaints about Wooten to the police. Bailey, who is now on paid leave from his state job, has said that in trashing Wooten to state police management, he had "overstepped my boundaries … I should not have spoken for the governor, or Todd, for that matter."
In a press release issued last week by her new lawyer, Palin continued to attack the character of Wooten—still serving as a state trooper in Palin's hometown of Wasilla. The release repeats allegations that Wooten had threatened members of her family, including her father, with violence; that Wooten had threatened to "bring" Palin and members of her family "down;" and that Wooten had once been the subject of a court-imposed domestic-violence protection order. A court filing by Wooten's lawyer indicates that within months of being issued, the violence protection order was dismissed.