A new Alaska legislative report finding that Gov. Sarah Palin abused her power and violated state ethics laws spells new trouble for the McCain campaign. Special counsel Steve Branchflower's report could lead to fines or legislative action to censure Palin. It also directly challenges the vice presidential candidate's credibility on key points related to the "Troopergate" controversy. Palin has said she fired Walt Monegan, Alaska's public-safety commissioner, last summer solely because of budget disputes and "insubordination" by Monegan. But Branchflower found that a likely "contributing" factor was Palin's desire to fire state trooper Mike Wooten, her ex-brother-in-law. While Palin had the right to fire Monegan, Branchflower found that she allowed her husband and top aides to put "impermissible pressure" on subordinates to "advance a personal agenda." The report also questioned Palin's public contention that her family "feared" Wooten, noting that shortly after she took office she ordered a sizable reduction in her personal protection detail.
McCain campaign spokeswoman Meg Stapleton dismissed the report as the product of "a partisan-led inquiry run by Obama supporters." But there could be more land mines ahead. Some weeks ago, the McCain team devised a plan to have Palin file an ethics complaint against herself with the State Personnel Board, arguing that it alone was capable of conducting a fair, nonpartisan inquiry into whether she fired Monegan because he refused to fire Wooten, who had been involved in a messy custody battle with her sister. Some Democrats ridiculed the move, noting that the personnel board answered to Palin. But the board ended up hiring an aggressive Anchorage trial lawyer, Timothy Petumenos, as an independent counsel. McCain aides were chagrined to discover that Petumenos was a Democrat who had contributed to Palin's 2006 opponent for governor, Tony Knowles. Palin is now scheduled to be questioned next week, and the counsel's report could be released soon after. "We took a gamble when we went to the personnel board," said a McCain aide who asked not to be identified discussing strategy. While the McCain camp still insists Palin "has nothing to hide," it acknowledges a critical finding by Petumenos would be even harder to dismiss.