By Jason Leopold
The Public Record
Monday, September 29, 2008
An Alaska woman who owns a company that processes workers' compensation claims in the state has told an independent investigator that she was urged by the office of Gov. Sarah Palin to deny a benefits claim for Palin's ex brother-in-law, a state trooper who was involved in an ugly divorce and child custody dispute with Palin's sister, despite evidence that the claim appeared to be legitimate, according to state officials who were briefed about the conversation.
Murlene Wilkes, the proprietor of Harbor Adjusting Services in Anchorage, had originally denied that she was pressured by Gov. Palin's office to deny state trooper Mike Wooten's claim for workers compensation benefits.
But Wilkes changed her story two weeks ago when she was subpoenaed by Steven Branchflower, the former federal prosecutor who was appointed in July to probe allegations Gov. Palin, Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, abused her office by abruptly ousting Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, state officials knowledgeable about her conversation with Branchflower said.
Monegan has said he felt pressured by Gov. Palin, her husband, Todd, and several of her aides to fire Wooten. Branchflower's investigation centers on whether Palin fired Monegan because he refused to fire Wooten.
Palin initially welcomed the investigation, which was approved unanimously in July by the state's Legislative Council, which has a Republican majority. However, after McCain picked Palin in late August to be his vice presidential running mate, national and state Republicans began suggesting that the investigation was a partisan witch-hunt against Palin.
Despite pressure from the McCain-Palin campaign - and the refusal of Todd Palin and some Palin aides to honor subpoenas seeking their depositions - senior Alaskan legislators said Branchflower still intended to finish his report on the controversy by Oct. 10.
The workers' compensation issue is likely to be a major focus of Branchflower's report, according to state officials knowledgeable about the course of the investigation.
Wilkes has a $1.2 million contract with the state to handle workers compensation claims. Her contract with the state was up but her firm was recently given a new contract despite the fact that there were others who provided the state with a lower bid than Wilkes's firm. One of the other applicants who submitted a lower bid has appealed the decision.
Wilkes told Branchflower she believed it was impressed upon her from Palin's office that she would lose the contract if she did not deny the claim, state officials knowledgeable about her testimony said.
Although Wooten did receive worker's compensation benefits for about three months, his claim was suddenly denied and he was forced to hire a lawyer and appeal the issue, which dragged on for more than six months. It's unknown if Wilkes played any role in denying Wooten worker's compensation benefits.
According to John Cyr, the executive director of the Public Safety Employees Association, the union that represents Wooten and other state troopers, Wooten was approved for workers compensation benefits in January 2007. He filed for benefits due to a back injury he suffered when he pulled a dead body from a wrecked automobile and slipped on icy pavement.
The same month Wooten started receiving workers compensation benefits, Todd Palin began following Wooten around "snapping pictures of him," Cyr said.
"Frank Bailey was getting people to say that [Wooten] was lying on his worker's comp form," Cyr said. "The governor's family was following Mike around everywhere. They forwarded that information to the worker's comp division."
Cyr said Wooten had been received his benefits checks totaling $11,000 without any problems until "somewhere between the end of March and the first of April."
"Out of nowhere [Wooten's] workers comp claim was contravened, which basically means he got a letter saying he wasn't entitled to benefits anymore," Cyr said in an interview. Documents show that a state lawyer intervened in the case. Wooten "hired an attorney and filed a counterclaim against the state. Eventually, in November 2007 there was a settlement. Part of that settlement included an operation on [Wooten's] back in California. This was a serious injury and he was flat broke and had to file for bankruptcy because his claims were denied. There was absolutely a personal vendetta against this trooper by the governor and the governor's staff."
However, according to documents in Wooten's case, the trooper had a preexisting condition that resulted in his disability claims being denied.
But Branchflower has obtained evidence that extends beyond Wilkes's statements that shows the denial of Wooten's benefits was due to Palin's office involvement in the case, according to the officials knowledgeable about this aspect of the probe.
Branchflower has apparently zeroed in on a routing slip dated Aug. 21-about a month after the ethics probe into Palin was launched-from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development shows Wooten's workers comp file was pulled and sent to the attention of Mike Monagle, a state manager with the workers' compensation division.
"Wooten, as requested," the routing slip says, which was made out to the attention of "Mike Monagle."
"A request came in to return all of Wooten's [worker's comp] files to Juneau [the state capital]," according to a note and routing slip faxed to Cyr from the worker's compensation division. "The person who asked to route the files was told the files were being copied for the governor."
It's unclear why Palin's office requested Wooten's workers compensation files or how it factors into Branchflower's investigation.
Branchflower confronted Wilkes with evidence-including statements made to Branchflower by one of Wilkes's former co-workers-that showed her previous statements were contradicted and that Palin's office did try to intervene and contacted her to ensure Wooten did not receive benefits for a back injury he said he received while on the job.
Wilkes told Branchlower that she received phone calls and personal visits from Palin officials, including Palin's husband, Todd Palin, and was told to deny Wooten's application for worker's compensation claims because he lied about his physical condition, these people said.
Wilkes said Todd Palin had shown her photographs of Wooten on a snowmobile during the time he was allegedly unable to work as evidence that he was not entitled to benefits, these people said. It is unknown whether Branchflower has determined that any laws were broken as a result of Palin's office alleged interference in her ex brother-in-law's workers compensation case.
Immediately after being sworn in as Governor of Alaska, Palin and her husband and several senior aides conducted what amounted to a rogue investigation into suspicions that Wooten was faking a job-related injury as a state trooper, according to state documents, law enforcement officials and former aides to Palin.
The investigation was conducted using the resources of Gov. Palin's office and had the goal of destroying Mike Wooten's career with the Alaska state troopers, the documents and the interviews reveal.
A little-noticed passage in a transcript of a conversation between Frank Bailey, Palin's director of boards and commissions, and Alaska State Trooper Lt. Rodney Dial shows that Palin's office had developed information against Wooten that was turned over to the state's worker's compensation board, purportedly to prove that Wooten was not too sick or injured to work.
In the Feb. 28, 2008, conversation with Dial, Bailey disclosed that Gov. Palin and her husband had uncovered information about the trooper that was not publicly available and had collected statements about Wooten going "snowmachining" when he was out on workers comp for a back injury.
"The situation where [Wooten] declared workers comp, but then was caught on an eight-mile snowmachining [sic] trip days - days after, you know, that - that started coming up there," Bailey said. "So we collected statements that we forwarded on to worker's comp."
In January 2007, the same month Wooten began collecting workers comp benefits and less than 30 days into Palin's term as governor, Todd Palin invited new public safety commissioner Monegan to the governor's office, where Todd Palin urged Monegan to reopen the Wooten case. After checking on it, Monegan said he informed Todd Palin that he couldn't do anything because the case was closed.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Monegan said that a few days later, the governor also called him about the Wooten matter and he gave her the same answer. Monegan said Gov. Palin brought the issue up again in a February 2007 meeting at the state capitol, prompting a warning that she should back off.
Last update : Tuesday, September 30, 2008