For obvious reasons, those on the left have seized on the Troopergate report as evidence of Gov. Palin’s shoddy tactics and unfitness to serve as Vice President. That’s entirely predictable. But how about the libertarians? You’d think that libertarians would be concerned about a charge that a state executive abused her executive power for personal gain – not financial gain, but to advance a personal agenda. Executive power unconstrained by law, to the libertarians, is the paramount threat to liberty – neither the legislative nor the judicial branches can accomplish anything without the state’s monopoly on the use of force, wielded by the executive.
I’ve now read the entire Troopergate report. It’s pretty petty stuff – significant only if you think that even small abuses of executive power are significant (as, I would think, many libertarians do). It’s pretty clear that Gov. Palin wanted Wooten fired, or at least demoted, and that she communicated that desire (and allowed her husband, using State resources (State computers, the Governor’s office, State telephones) to do so as well. I haven’t seen anything to contradict that, even from Palin’s spokespersons (see below). The question is whether she acted improperly in doing so.
As best I can make out, here are the defenses that have been offered for Palin’s conduct.
1. The investigation was politically motivated. (e.g., from the Palin campaign: “Today's report . . . illustrates what we've known all along: this was a partisan led inquiry run by Obama supporters”). That’s almost certainly correct; it’s hard to imagine an investigation of a candidate for national office in the final weeks of a campaign being free of political motives. But the motives of the investigators don’t effect the existence, or the meaning, of past events. That is, even if we assume that it’s a hatchet job, there are facts in the Report, and the facts say something, for themselves. So let’s assume the investigation was entirely politically motivated and move on to the more important question: was there, in fact, or was there not, an abuse of power?
Here are the two key "findings" (from page 8 of the .pdf file; boldface mine): “Finding Number One For the reasons explained in section IV of this 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. Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) provides The legislature reaffirms 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." Finding Number Two I find that, although Walt Monegan's refusal to fire Trooper Michael Wooten was not the sole reason he was fired by Governor Sarah Palin, it was likely a contributing factor to his termination as Commissioner of Public Safety. In spite of that, Governor Palin's firing of Commissioner Monegan was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority to hire and fire executive branch department heads.”
Here's a note to Mr. Branchflower, who clearly is verbose, but obviously none too keen a scholar of logic: Gov. Palin's so-called "firing" of Monegan (it wasn't a firing, it was a re-assignment to other government duties that he resigned rather than accept) can't simultaneously be a violation of the Ethics Act and "a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority." This, gentle readers, is a 263-page piece of political circus that actually explicitly refutes itself on its single most key page!
That doesn’t really make any sense. It is perfectly logical to conclude, as the Report does, that (a) the re-assignment of Monegan was lawful and consistent with the Ethics Act, and (b) other conduct of Gov. Palin was not lawful and consistent with the Ethics Act. This is hardly an “explicit refutation” or some kind of inconsistency.
3. No money changed hands. This is the primary defense offered by Palin’s lawyers:
Every prior reported Ethics Act violation involved financial motives and financial ‘potential gain, or the avoidance of a potential loss.’ [citing cases] The common thread in all of these Ethics Act cases is money – and the use of a government position to personally gain. Here there is no accusation, no finding, and no facts that money or financial gain to the Governor was involved in the decision to replace Monegan.”
That’s an odd one – that Gov. Palin did not do anything to enrich herself seems like a hyper-technical defense to a charge of abuse of the public trust: “I didn’t line my pockets, I was just acting out a personal vendetta.” One would think that if any of the facts were incorrect, her lawyers would want to point that out, but they didn’t.
Also, while I’m no expert in Alaska Ethics law, this strikes me as a most peculiar reading of the Alaska Ethics Act, which provides:
“The legislature reaffirms 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.”
Just as a matter of elementary statutory construction, it’s pretty obvious, to me at least, that the statute cannot be construed to cover only financial matters, because such a construction renders the words “personal or” entirely superfluous, and we all know that interpretations of statutes making words superfluous are disfavored.
4. Wooten was a threat to public safety. Palin’s campaign press release again: “the Report illustrates [that] the Palins were completely justified in their concern regarding Trooper Wooten given his violent and rogue behavior.” That’s also an odd defense, and perhaps the most disturbing one of all – at least, disturbing to a libertarian. Let’s again assume it’s true – that Wooten was an unstable and potentially dangerous man, unfit to serve as a state trooper. There are procedures in place to remove such people from office; they had already been activated here, and had reached a conclusion with which Gov. Palin apparently disagreed (i.e., Wooten was not dismissed). So she and her husband are justified in putting additional pressure on those in a supervisory position to try to see to it that Wooten is removed from the force. I don’t know about you, but this makes me pretty nervous. That’s always the excuse for abuses of executive power: I had the public interest in view, and surely I can’t be burdened with complying with those niggling laws and procedures, which only get in the way of my doing my job. That’s a really disturbing philosophy for someone who might wield national executive power to hold.
5. It’s just her husband. Most of the factual allegations concern actions taken by Todd Palin, for which Gov. Palin should not be held responsible. This is probably the strongest defense on the facts – except for the fact that Todd Palin was given access to the governor’s office and personnel and computers and phones while he was engaged in this activity. Several of the meetings described in the Report took place in the governor’s office, with Todd and Monegan or some other State official being the only ones present. Either the governor knew that (bad) or didn’t (also bad).
So I’d be curious to know whether there are some outraged libertarians out there whose writings I haven’t seen pertaining to this affair (or if there are other defenses to Gov. Palin’s conduct that I haven’t summarized above and that more clearly excuse her conduct). [And a special request, if I may -- I'm sure that everyone will appreciate efforts to keep comments on-point and away from ad hominem attacks]