Friday night saw the demise of Sarah Palin's dreaded "Troopergate," scandal with the release of a lengthy legislative report finding that the Governor had "abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110 (a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act. The ethics rule provides that "each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust." The report concluded that "(Palin) knowingly, as the term is defined in the above cited statutes, permitted Todd Palin to use the governor's office and the resources of the governor's office, including state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get trooper (Mike) Wooten fired." (Wooten was Palin's brother-in law, embroiled in a nasty split with her sister). But the report goes on to conclude that Palin's dismissal of Alaska's public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, "was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority to hire and fire executive branch department heads."
Ultimately, Monegan served at Palin's pleasure. If she could fire him for refusing to wear a light-up reindeer tie, she could fire him for almost anything. Thus the Troopergate report giveth, and the Troopergate report taketh away: Palin broke the state ethics laws but ultimately committed no crime. The state legislature might still vote to sanction her but it's unlikely to happen and cannot happen before the election. And if all that sounds familiar it's because it echoes Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who—in declining to prosecute Justice Department officials who broke the civil service laws by hiring based on partisan criteria— announced in August that "not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime." Sometimes the embarrassment is punishment enough.
Just ask poor Alberto Gonzales. How is it that firing folks willy-nilly in last year's U.S. attorney firing scandal, left him disgraced, unemployable, and the subject of ominous future investigations, while Sarah Palin will skate right past Troopergate like a hockey mom in lipstick? How can it be that Gonzales' life is ruined because his subordinates fired their subordinates for selfish partisan reasons, whereas Palin will chug on unaffected, and maybe right on into the vice president's office? You're thinking that it's because she has better highlights. But the truth is that Sarah Palin is smarter than Alberto Gonzales. Way. And she could teach the poor guy a thing or two about picking your way through a firing scandal. For starters:
1. Don't testify. When asked to testify about the U.S. attorney firings, poor Al Gonzales cooperated. Then he cooperated again. And then (sigh) again. Each such episode was more excruciating than its predecessor. The lies piled up. But still he soldiered on. Whereas Palin, who had initially agreed to cooperate with the investigation, saying "I'm happy to comply," promptly refused to do so. Sure it looked terrible. And yes the state attorney general's office was chided in yesterday's report for its "failure to substantially comply with [an] August 6, 2008 written request to Governor Sarah Palin for information about the case in the form of emails." But so what? Better to be suspected obstructive, elusive and guilty, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
2. Disparage and discredit the investigation immediately. Sarah Palin looked like she was up against the wall. After all, the Troopergate report was commissioned, unanimously, last summer by a state legislative panel consisting of 10 Republicans and four Democrats. That's what makes her claim that the whole thing was a partisan liberal witch hunt such a deft piece of political jujitsu. By repeating, endlessly, that the entire inquiry was "illegal and unconstitutional" as well as a "smear," Palin managed to discredit a completely bipartisan inquiry. It took Gonzales, on the other hand, weeks to figure out that Democrats were actually to blame for seeing misconduct in his decision to fire people for partisan reasons. Instead of blaming his tormentors, he initially acceded to their authority. Huge mistake. By the time he got around to having his boss denounce the whole scandal as a "partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants," the hook had already been firmly lodged in his mouth and all the flopping around in the world couldn't have changed that.
3. Run for higher office during your scandal and take key witnesses with you on the road: Related to No. 1, above. When Sarah Palin's husband, Todd, was subpoenaed to testify about his own role in Troopergate, his lawyer responded with a three-page letter laying out the reasons he wouldn't cooperate, the crowning jewel being the claim that Todd Palin would find testifying "unduly burdensome" in light of his many "scheduling obligations over the next two months" as his wife was running for office. Chutzpah,thy name is Todd. The best response to political scandal? Seek higher office. The act of doing so instantly transforms any investigation into a partisan enterprise, see No. 2, above. If Gov. Palin could have advised Gonzales to run for, say governor, at the height of the U.S. attorney scandal, perhaps bringing Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson on the road for Slurpee runs, the explosive inspector general's report that came out late last month would have consisted of 300+ blank pages. By staying at his job for months and making his witnesses available to investigators, Gonzales dug his own grave.
4. Don't rough up the help. That's what Todd is for. The most devastating findings in the IG's report were that Gonzales was napping at the switch at Justice, letting unqualified underlings abuse others with impunity. But Sarah Palin did a much better job in contracting out her thuggery. While it's true that both Palin and Gonzales were savvy enough to remain at arm's length throughout the sordid firing process, Palin picked a much better hooligan. As the Troopergate report concludes, Palin mainly confined her official wrongdoing to condoning her husband's ham-fisted, but unofficial, efforts to intimidate Monegan. How is it that Palin isn't on the hook for her husband's bad acts, while Gonzo is left holding the bag for Kyle Sampson's shenanigans? Palin's hired hand had no official title. Better yet, he was the wind beneath her wings. The Troopergate report reflects that while Todd Palin spent approximately half his time in the governor's office—at a conference table (he had no desk) —making calls on his own phone line, he had no real job. It was, as Time magazine describes it today, "a shadow office, the informal Department of Getting Mike Wooten Fired." The enduring lesson for Alberto Gonzales? Next time, don't give Kyle Sampson a desk.
5. Never stop blaming the victim. Both Palin and Gonzales provided crazily shifting justifications for the firings initiated by their subordinates. Gonzales, for instance, first swore the U.S. attorneys were sacked for "job-performance reasons" that were "related to policy, priorities and management." Later the claim became that New Mexico's David Iglesias was an "absentee landlord" and California's Carol Lam was sacked for "not prosecuting more firearms and border smuggling cases." That's because "not a loyal Bushie" would have sounded terrible. Ditto for Sarah Palin, who alternately claimed that Walt Monegan was fired for his efforts "to seek federal money for investigating and prosecuting sexual assault cases" and/or "egregious insubordination" and/or "budget issues and failure to fill trooper vacancies." Neither Gonzales nor Palin ever mustered up a truly credible complaint about the people they sought to fire. But Gonzales never quite had the stomach to press the point. (It didn't help that most of the fired U.S. attorneys had sterling evaluations). Credit Palin with going down fighting. Even as it became clear that her husband and subordinates were happy to break the law and exert pressure on Monegan, she has continued to insist—as her campaign did just last night —that even though they did nothing wrong, "the Palins were completely justified in their concern regarding Trooper Wooten given his violent and rogue behavior." In other words, Palin subordinates' illegal, impermissible and repeated contacts with subordinates, were somehow not illegal because trooper Wooten was a really bad guy.
So, let this be a lesson to those of you in high office with dreams of firing others for personal or political gain. It's not what you do but the way that you do it. Anyone can fire an employee who serves at their pleasure. But it takes a special cocktail of panache, spin, deceit, and denial to completely bungle the job, and still skate away unharmed.