Palin Broke the Law, Says Investigation

But on Sunday, and since, journalists let her off the hook

Ask any public relations hack, and they’ll tell you that Friday night—especially if it comes before a long weekend—is a magical time.

So on Friday afternoon, when a bipartisan committee of Alaskan state legislators unanimously voted to release an investigator’s report on Sarah and Todd Palin’s efforts to remove their former brother-in-law from his job as a state trooper, the timing could not have been better for the McCain/Palin campaign.

Four time zones away, in Washington and New York, it was already well into the dinner hour. Many members of the political press corps were, no doubt, away from their desks.

To those who were there to read the report, the findings could not have been clearer. Firstly, the legislators’ investigator, Stephen Branchflower, said that Palin violated the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act by using her official power in an attempt to gain a personal benefit. From page eight of his report:

…I find that Governor Sarah Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.

This is pretty simple. Branchflower found that Palin abused her power by violating a portion of state law.

At the same time, Branchflower found that, while the Wooten matter was a “substantial” factor in Palin’s decision to fire Walt Monegan, the former Anchorage police chief she hired to run the state’s Department of Public Safety, the firing was not illegal. As Branchflower wrote, Alaska’s constitution vests governors with “very broad discretion to fire the head of any department” for “almost any reason, or no reason at all.” In other words, Palin was in her legal right, no matter how dicey her reasons, to fire Monegan. She has seized on that legal technicality to bury the report’s first finding: that the Palins used the power of the governorship to further a personal vendetta—in violation of state law.

On any planet, this finding should be big news. Again, a 263-page official report—chock full of detail, investigative interview transcripts, and clear legal exegesis—has found that a vice presidential candidate has violated her home state’s ethics laws. And, in response, Palin and the McCain campaign have repeatedly misrepresented the report’s contents.

So it’s shocking that neither NBC’s Meet the Press, nor ABC’s This Week, nor CBS’s Face the Nation, nor CNN’s Late Edition discussed the report. (Instead the programs focused on the economy, as well as the Bill Ayres/George Wallace sideshows.) If they had delved into the Alaska report, maybe they could have staunched the false narrative currently taking hold in some quarters of the press.

A search through the television monitoring service TVEyes indicates that the matter came up, briefly, on only two programs.

One place was CNN’s Reliable Sources, where host Howard Kurtz was kind enough to mention a piece I wrote last week. Still, that’s little comfort, because Kurtz made an absolute mess of the report’s conclusions. Here’s how Kurtz set up the conversation:

It was 8:30 Eastern on Friday night when the Alaska legislature released an investigative report that governor Sarah Palin abused her power but broke no law in firing Walt Monegan. This is a guy who she and her husband, Todd, pressured to get rid of a trooper that was involved in a messy divorce and custody battle with Sarah Palin’s sister.

While technically accurate, Kurtz’s words leave a false impression of the report’s conclusions. Yes, the report did indeed found she “broke no law in [the] firing,” and also found she abused her power. But the report says that her abuse of power was a consequence of having violated state law.

Lynn Sherr, a retiring ABC correspondent and one of Kurtz’s panelists, attempted to clear up the matter. “The precise thing that the report says is that she violated the ethics standard. Now, I have to say, I think the report is a little weasely and I would like to see more press coverage of how do you abuse your power and but it’s within your power to fire somebody? Apparently she violated a state ethics law. Isn’t that breaking the law?”

Kurtz soon “corrected” her: “Well, the investigator’s conclusion is that she had not broken the law, and that the firing of the public safety commissioner was not only for this reason, but that this reason was a factor.”

In short: No.

The only other Sunday show to broach the report’s finding was Fox News Sunday, where Chris Wallace bested Kurtz by clearly and accurately explaining the report’s findings to his viewers and to McCain campaign manager Rick Davis:

Rick, the report said that Palin was within her rights to get rid of the public safety commissioner, but it also said she violated the state ethics act by pressuring state employees to try to fire her brother-in-law. And this was approved unanimously by a bipartisan legislative council.

Davis responded by first claiming that the investigation was actually a partisan witch hunt, and that no one in Alaska had cared about the investigation before Palin became the vice presidential nominee. And then he served up this big whopper: “…the best they could come up with was no violations of any kind of laws or ethics rules.”

Wallace interrupted with the facts: “Well, wait, no, it says she violated the state ethics board!”

Davis buzzed past with another vague falsehood—“She acted within her power and scope of authority as governor to do exactly what she did.”—that conflated the legal-firing finding with the ethics act violation.

As Sherr suggested on Reliable Sources, Palin’s description of the report as a exculpation is, in itself, galling. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker just slapped Palin with four Pinocchios for this line. But it still cut Palin a bit of slack by not addressing whether the ethics violations constituted “breaking the law.”

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal had no trouble with that fact, noting that “Gov. Palin faced a weekend of critical news coverage following an Alaska legislative report concluding that she violated state ethics laws…” And this morning, ABC’s Jake Tapper turned in a report on Good Morning America, that, in under three minutes, debunked three of Palin’s “repeated false assertion[s]” about the contents of the report. Tapper said, straight up, that the report concluded she had “abused her power and violated state ethics laws.”

(Even Palin should agree. In 2004, Palin and a Democratic lawmaker issued a joint statement calling for a formal investigation of the sitting governor and his attorney general under the Ethics Act, which they repeatedly referred to as state law.)

Still, some outlets continue to say that the report found no violation of the law. This afternoon, MSNBC ran this chyron under a conversation with Palin spokesperson Meg Stapleton: “Alaskan legislators find that Palin broke ethics rules but not the law.” And The Anchorage Daily News is treating the question of whether or not the report said she broke the law as a partisan he-said/she-said.

This isn’t clarity. It isn’t even correct. It’s an excess of evenhandedness. Palin can dispute the accuracy of Branchflower’s reading of state law, or even question—as she has—if it was appropriate for the legislature to investigate the matter. But no matter what you heard—or didn’t hear—since the release of the report, its conclusion is clear: she broke the law.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.