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A Bush-Style Whitewash

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, October 16, 2008

For anyone who followed the story of how and why Sarah Palin fired her state's public safety commissioner, last week's release of a legislative investigation that found she had violated state ethics statutes was anticlimactic. After all, everyone knows that she and her husband, Todd, tried to push Walt Monegan, then Alaska's public safety commissioner, to fire a state trooper named Mike Wooten, who was involved in a bitter divorce from Ms. Palin's sister -- and that after Mr. Monegan refused, he lost his job.

But while the state probe's conclusions were unsurprising, there is still something to be learned from its findings and the McCain-Palin campaign's response. From beginning to end, this episode demonstrates a disregard for the rule of law and a contemptuous attitude toward truth that are all too familiar by now.

Here, too, the election of the Republican ticket will mean more of what we have already experienced for the past eight years.

It is a pattern that can be traced back through the years of the Bush administration whenever a whiff of scandal arises: Promise a thorough investigation and full cooperation with the lawful authorities. Then stonewall and withhold evidence and testimony so that the investigation can never quite be completed. Insist that the partial investigation is actually a full and complete exoneration, even if official reports and prosecutors clearly indicate otherwise. Create a "reality" that will be mirrored and echoed by friendly media and the partisan base, while denigrating any effort to discuss actual facts as a conspiracy by the "liberal" media.

Whitewash, rinse and repeat.

The same seedy pattern can be traced in the White House response to the Valerie Plame scandal and more recently in the probe of the firing of U.S. attorneys, both of which implicated the former deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove. And it can be seen just as clearly in the way that Palin and her campaign handlers have dealt with the problems of "Troopergate" -- which culminated in her strange statement over the weekend claiming that the scorching report on her firing of Monegan had "cleared" her.

"I'm very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing, any hint of any kind of unethical activity there. Very pleased to be cleared of any of that," she told reporters. "If you read the report, you'll see that there was nothing unlawful or unethical about replacing a cabinet member." Or as McCain campaign manager and lobbyist Rick Davis assured the credulous audience of Fox News Channel: "The reality is there was absolutely no wrongdoing found in the report … [and] no violations of any kinds of laws or ethics rules."

Reading the 263-page report, however, it is obvious that Palin was no more cleared of unethical activity than she blocked the "bridge to nowhere." In fact, precisely the reverse is true. The legislative report, filed by one of Alaska's most respected and nonpartisan prosecutors, states with absolute clarity that as governor, Palin violated the Executive Branch Ethics Act, which prohibits any official from seeking to "benefit a personal interest." She, her husband and her aides tried on nearly 20 separate occasions to induce Mr. Monegan to fire her former brother-in-law. The wording of the report's conclusion could not be plainer -- namely that "impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda, to wit: to get Trooper Michael Wooten fired."

But she didn't violate state law -- as far as the investigation could determine -- because that law permitted her to fire Mr. Monegan for any reason whatsoever. The ethics violations occurred before the firing.

The other bad habit that Palin seems to share with Rove and the Republicans currently in power is her allergy to disclosure, even when required by law. The 263-page report notes acidly that the Palin probe suffered from stonewalling by members of her administration, with at least 10 top officials refusing to testify or ignoring subpoenas, presumably on the advice of the New York lawyer hired by the McCain campaign. Some of those same individuals later "agreed" to provide responses to written questions -- not the same as sworn testimony -- long after their answers would have been useful to the investigators. Moreover, the Palin administration refused to provide e-mails and other documentation that the investigators required. Executive privilege, they cried, parroting the perennial Bush line.

John McCain enhanced his reputation over the past eight years by his occasional demurrals from the worst abuses of the Bush administration, including torture. Aware of the president's bottoming poll numbers, he said the other day that "we cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight." But that is precisely what we will do if he and his unethical pit bull enter the White House.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC

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