Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Palin has checkered history on ethics issues.
By BRETT J. BLACKLEDGE and JUSTIN PRITCHARD, Associated Press Writers
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose reformer image took a hit in a report concluding she abused her powers to settle a family score, has skirted state ethics rules before for personal benefit and used her office to help friends and supporters, according to an Associated Press review of records.
Palin's first try at statewide office, after six years as mayor of Wasilla, was an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 2002. To raise money, she improperly used her City Hall office and equipment, city records show. A year later she would make headlines by blasting a fellow Republican for, among other things, improperly using his government position to boost his campaign.
Then, in 2006, Palin won the governor's race with a vow to reform state ethics. But in less than two years, she has repeatedly taken actions that violated her own stated standards for ethical behavior — if not state law. In the process, the Republican vice presidential nominee has become much like the old-school politicians she attacked during her rise to power.
_She pummeled opponents for giving oil companies and other businesses too much control of state government. Yet she appointed the founder of an engineering firm that received $6.8 million in state business as head of the transportation department.
_She has accepted dozens of gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars since taking office, including two free trips last year that she failed to report on disclosure forms, despite criticizing state legislators for the gifts they take.
_She is under another investigation, accused of misusing her office to campaign against a voter referendum calling for tighter mining regulations. Her husband, Todd, has accepted free trips from a mining company to look at their proposed new site.
_Another ethics complaint, unresolved, accuses her staff of finding a state job for a friend and campaign contributor.
Last week, an investigation by the Alaska legislature found that Palin, running mate to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, abused her powers when she and her husband improperly pressured the state public safety commissioner to fire her sister's ex-husband, a state trooper. The brother-in-law was never fired, but Palin fired the commissioner in July.
"It's all about the power, and it frightens me," said state Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat who like many in the minority party have supported Palin on some issues, including energy policy. "She doesn't seem to know where the boundaries are."
Even critics concede that Palin deserves credit for working with legislators to toughen state ethics laws and for providing more information to taxpayers about state spending. She advocated restrictions on lobbyists' giving, increased disclosure requirements for public officials and posted state spending details on the Internet.
Palin also risked her own political future by exposing unethical behavior by other public officials, even those in her own party.
But they say she often claims the ethical high ground when she hasn't been above questionable behavior herself.
"She's very good at reading the public's discontent and pandering to it," said Larry Persily, who worked in the governor's Washington, D.C., office until resigning earlier this year.
Palin faced questions during her 2006 gubernatorial race about her use of the Wasilla mayor's office four years earlier to run for lieutenant governor. Palin used city staff and office equipment — including a fax machine, computers for e-mail and a City Hall phone number — to run her campaign, according to city records.
She apologized for those transgressions in 2006, but only this month acknowledged to the AP that the city initially paid for a campaign flight in that 2002 race and that weeks later she reimbursed the city.
"According to people who worked with her at the time, the travel agency inadvertently billed the city rather than her personally," McCain campaign spokesman Taylor Griffin said in a written statement. "To ensure that it was corrected immediately, she reimbursed Wasilla and the campaign later reimbursed her. It's an example of Gov. Palin's commitment to the highest standards of ethics."
Palin brushed the issue aside when she ran for governor, arguing it was nothing more than an opponent's smear campaign.
She has cast herself as Alaska's ethics watchdog. In her most dramatic move, she revealed in 2003 that the state's Republican Party leader was campaigning from his state job. She then challenged incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski two years ago on a platform of government reform.
After her victory, though, Palin reverted to political tradition, rewarding even marginally qualified friends and campaign backers with high-level positions.
A friend from her Wasilla High School class was named to manage the state's agriculture office after a career in real estate. A family friend and campaign worker became head of the state agency that invests Alaska's oil revenue. Her real estate agent's husband received an appointment to the state real estate board.
Palin's biggest political splash was from attacking the big oil companies that she said ran the state. She challenged their political power, and promised voters that her administration would avoid cozy relationships with business.
But one of her first cabinet appointments didn't live up to that pledge.
Leo von Scheben, a co-founder of Anchorage-based USKH Inc. engineering firm, took over the state's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and his firm's state business increased, records show. USKH received $6.8 million in state transportation contracts last year, up 13 percent from $6 million the year before.
Von Scheben stopped taking a salary and all benefits from the company when he stepped into the state job. But he didn't sever all financial ties. Von Scheben receives annual stock payments that he arranged before he left the company in 2007 that will continue for 10 years, according to his financial disclosure forms.
Von Scheben said he has recused himself on projects pursued by the firm and that others in the agency select companies to receive state business. He said he believes his appointment may have cost his former company state business, although he doesn't regret taking the job.
"If the state can't draw on some private sector people, they're missing out," he said.
Palin claims passage of broad ethics reforms as an accomplishment following state corruption scandals. But Palin didn't report as gifts two free trips she received in 2007 as legislators were debating the new ethics law.
"This is simply a rare oversight, nothing more," campaign spokesman Griffin said when asked about the omissions by the AP.
Palin has, in fact, reported most of her gifts on her annual financial disclosure forms, something her predecessor never did, according to Alaska Public Offices Commission records.
The unreported paid trips:
_The $2,988 cost of Palin's April 2007 flight and hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., for a four-day conference was paid by the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute of North Carolina, a nonprofit education policy group. Palin received the same free trip as dozens of other governors invited over the years to attend the annual summit, institute spokesman April White said.
_A May 2007 overnight visit with her three daughters and her parents attending a family reception at Mt. Chilkoot Lodge in Skagway, Alaska, was paid for by friend and former deputy campaign treasurer Kathy Hosford, one of the lodge's owners.
"We weren't open and it was just on a friendship basis," Hosford said.
The Palins used two suites valued at $150 each, said Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman in the governor's office.
The same day Palin visited Skagway, executives of the Anchorage-based VECO Inc. pleaded guilty to offering bribes to five legislators. Palin, mingling with old family friends and town residents, spoke briefly with local reporters during her visit, calling the corruption developments "atrocious" and promising change.
"There are problems in state government," Palin told The Skagway News, "and on our watch it is our responsibility to show people that we are going to clean things up."
Persily, who said he left Palin's administration because he didn't enjoy working in Washington, said Palin is skillful in "attacking the 'good ol' boys.' The good ol' boys that Palin is talking about are those that can't help her politically."
Democratic state Rep. Mike Doogan said Palin, even as she bends or breaks the rules herself, acts as if she invented ethics in Alaska.
"It's insulting to those of us who have always done the right thing," he said.