Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg’s resignation has brought out in the open what’s been simmering since Gov. Sarah Palin returned from the presidential campaign trail — the lingering hard feelings in the state Capitol.
But politicians disagree on the source of the fallout.
Some lawmakers say it stems from operatives from the John McCain-Palin campaign and how the Troopergate investigation was handled.
Palin, McCain’s running mate last year, sees it differently. She points to legislators positioning themselves for the 2010 campaign.
Whatever the source, it appears the most visible casualty is Colberg, seen by most as an affable, small-town guy who didn’t have the stomach for hard-boiled politics. Colberg’s resignation — effective immediately — was announced Tuesday.
“I determined that it was in the best interest of the State of Alaska to move on and pursue other opportunities,” Colberg said in a statement issued Tuesday by Palin’s office.
Colberg did not respond to calls to his home seeking comment.
Palin’s spokesman, Bill McAllister, said the resignation was a personal decision for Colberg and Palin neither fired nor pressured him to quit.
Palin herself questioned whether the current political climate factored in Colberg’s decision.
“In not wanting to speculate on his personal decision, I would hope this harsh political climate we are in right now won’t deter others who want to help this great state,” Palin told The Associated Press.
Any goodwill that existed among many legislators and Palin during her first two years in office soured after she agreed to be McCain’s No. 2 on the Republican presidential ticket.
The rub was Troopergate.
That was the name associated with the Legislature’s investigation into whether Palin, assisted by aides and her husband, pressured public safety commissioner Walt Monegan to fire a state trooper involved in a contentious divorce with Palin’s sister and then fired Monegan when he wouldn’t dismiss the trooper.
Palin said Monegan was ousted over budget disagreements.
Although Palin initially pledged her full cooperation, the issue became highly politicized when she joined the McCain campaign last fall.
McCain operatives stepped in and claimed the leader of the legislative body overseeing the probe, state Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat and Barack Obama supporter, was playing partisan politics.
Palin instead cooperated in a separate self-initiated review by the Alaska State Personnel Board.
In the legislative probe, lawmakers were particularly infuriated when potential witnesses, including nine state employees and Palin’s husband, Todd Palin, initially failed to honor their subpoenas. Colberg represented seven of the state employees, and says he only advised them of their options. Then he unsuccessfully fought the subpoenas in court.
The state Senate last week found the 10 witnesses in contempt for their actions, but handed down no penalties because they ultimately provided written testimony.
The House Judiciary Committee in January grilled Colberg on his apparent advocacy role for Palin in the probe. Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, wondered whether Colberg serves the Legislature, the governor or the people of Alaska.
Some observers see Colberg as a victim of circumstances, caught in the crossfire of a bruising national political campaign.
University of Alaska Fairbanks political science professor Gerald McBeath called Colberg an honorable man trapped in a hornet’s nest.
“He was caught in a situation without real clear lines about what happens when the governor is being investigated by the Legislature,” said McBeath. “He did take a position that was offensive to them and they effectively censured him for that.”
Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, a former political reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, said the attorney general’s main task traditionally has been to represent the governor.
But with Palin’s foray into national politics and the rise of the so-called “blogosphere,” where people write anonymous sometimes virulent comments on Web sites, the dynamics have changed, he said. And it may have been more than Colberg bargained for.
“I don’t think he thought the job would entail trying to find a way to have state employees not answer subpoenas because it was to his boss’ political benefit to do that,” Doogan said. “He didn’t know the details of it and might not have signed up for it had he known.”
If there is a harsh political environment in Alaska, Palin blames it on legislators trying to position themselves for the next campaign season, the 2010 governor’s race in particular.
French, who helped craft the Senate resolution finding the 10 witnesses in contempt, told the Anchorage Daily News that he was considering a run.
Palin herself has demonstrated future political aspirations. She recently formed a political action committee and traveled to Washington, D.C., for a high profile political dinner at the elite Alfalfa Club, where President Obama was among the guests.
But Palin won’t say what her own political plans are, whether they include trying for a second term as governor or a Senate run in 2010 or a presidential bid in 2012.
Palin insists she is focused on the job at hand.
Members of the Senate bipartisan majority proclaimed the Troopergate matter over, but only after giving Palin a civics lesson.
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, met with Palin to “clarify” the language in the resolution and to remind her that the Legislature is a separate but equal branch of government with subpoena power.
“I think we left with a clear understanding that we weren’t trying to be mean-spirited, that we weren’t trying to embarrass anybody, we just wanted to get this over and done with,” Stevens said after the meeting.
But in a letter he gave Palin earlier, he made it clear he didn’t have to schedule a committee hearing before a vote on the resolution to accept public testimony. Todd Palin’s lawyer argued witnesses had filed timely objections and complained that the Senate allowed no opportunity to rebut its findings ahead of the resolution’s passage.
“I chose not to give this resolution a committee hearing because I wanted to avoid providing anyone the opportunity to grandstand and divert attention away from the issue here: a simple clarification of the constitutional balance of powers between and among the co-equal branches of government,” Stevens wrote.
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