An independent investigator has found evidence that Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, may have violated ethics laws by trading on her position as she sought money for lawyer fees, in her latest legal distraction as she prepares to leave office this week.
The report obtained by The Associated Press said Palin was securing unwarranted benefits and receiving improper gifts through the Alaska Fund Trust, set up by supporters.
An investigator for the state Personnel Board said in his July 14 report that there was probable cause to believe Palin used or attempted to use her official position for personal gain because she authorized the creation of the trust as her legal defense fund.
The practical effect of the ruling on Palin will be more financial than anything else. The report recommends that Palin refuse to accept payment from the defense fund, and that the complaint be resolved without a formal hearing before the board. That allows her to resolve the issue without a formal ethics reprimand.
Palin posted an entry on Twitter in which she said the “matter is still pending,” a statement echoed by her lawyer.
The fund aims to help Palin pay off debts stemming from multiple ethics complaints against her, most of which have been dismissed.
Palin says she owes more than US$500,000 in legal fees, and she cited the mounting toll of the ethics probes as one of the reasons she is leaving office on Sunday.
Kristan Cole, the fund’s trustee, said organizers have frozen the fund pending the personnel board’s review. Politicians are routinely allowed to have such funds to pay off legal bills, but quirks in Alaska law can present ethics issues.
The investigator, Thomas Daniel, sided with Palin in her frustration with having to defend herself against a barrage of ethics complaints. He suggested that Alaska lawmakers may need to create a law that reimburses public officials for legal expenses to defend complaints that end up being unfounded.
Palin’s friends and supporters created the Alaska Fund Trust in April, limiting donations to US$150 per person. Organizers declined to say how much it has raised and had hoped to raise about US$500,000. A Webathon last month brought in about US$130,000 in pledges.
In his report, Daniel said his interpretation of the ethics act is consistent with common sense.
An ordinary citizen facing legal charges is not likely to be able to generate donations to a legal defense fund, he wrote.
“In contrast, Governor Palin is able to generate donations because of the fact that she is a public official and a public figure. Were it not for the fact that she is governor and a national political figure, it is unlikely that many citizens would donate money to her legal defense fund,” he said.
The ethics complaint was filed by Eagle River resident Kim Chatman shortly after the fund was created, alleging Palin was misusing her official position and accepting improper gifts.