THE SITUATION ROOM
Controversy with Gov. Palin on Trooper and Plane; Aired September 5, 2008 - THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, new details on the investigation into a possible abuse of power by Governor Sarah Palin — allegations that she tried to fire an Alaska state trooper, her ex- brother in law. Now he's speaking out in an exclusive interview with CNN.
She stole the show at the Republican Convention. But what does Sarah Palin have to do to get ready for her next big show, the crucial vice presidential debate with Joe Biden? And the East Coast gets ready for Tropical Storm Hanna but there may be more to worry about from Hurricane Ike following close behind. We have the latest forecast.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We begin with a CNN exclusive — new information about the controversy surrounding John McCain's running mate. Even as she hits the campaign trail, campaigning for one of the most powerful jobs in America, Sarah Palin is under close scrutiny for possible abuse of her powers as the governor of Alaska.
At the center of an official probe into Palin’s behavior, an Alaska state trooper — her former brother-in-law.
The question is this — did the governor try to get him fired?
And was Alaska's former public safety commissioner then fired because he failed to go along?
Drew Griffin of CNN’s Special Investigations Unit is in Alaska.
He's looking into the controversy.
And he's joining us now live from Anchorage — Drew, you had a chance to sit down with the trooper at the center of all this, Mike Wooten.
What are you learning?
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT: A surprising interview, Wolf, and surprisingly candid. The ex-brother-in-law is still a state trooper. And Michael Wooten says he has no ill will toward the Palin family. He actually told me he was excited about Governor Palin’s bid for the vice presidency.
What he doesn't like, though, is the fact that his private life and his bitter divorce with Sarah Palin’s sister and ensuing custody battle over their two children has now become the fodder for headlines all across the state, all across the country.
And he sat down with me in an exclusive interview to explain his side of the story. He demanded, though, Wolf, that he have his union representative at his side.
Here's part of that interview.
GRIFFIN: The headlines about you — tasered a stepson when you were a taser officer; shot a moose illegally when you were wildlife officer; two separate incidents where somebody saw you drinking in a car driving.
MICHAEL WOOTEN, ALASKA STATE TROOPER: Well, let me — let me take those on at a time and explain those to you.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): So he did. Yes, he admits, he did taser his stepson, but he believes he did it safely. And the boy wanted it done, he says.
WOOTEN: The situation with the taser is I was a brand new taser instructor just recently at the time. And I had just finished a training class and had all my stuff with me. And he was asking about it. And, you know, it wasn't — I didn't shoot him with a taser — with a live, you know, an actual live cartridge and shoot him with the probes and you know that kind of situation that some people have made this out to be. That's not the case at all.
It was a training aid that he was hooked up to, just little clips. And the — you know, the taser was activated for less than a second, which would be less than what you would get if you touched an electric fence. And, you know, it was as safe as I could possibly make it.
GRIFFIN (on camera): Looking back, was it dumb?
WOOTEN: Yes, it was. Absolutely. And, you know, like I stated before, I'm not perfect. I've made mistakes and I've learned from those mistakes. And not the best decision I've ever made. Absolutely not.
GRIFFIN: In fact, Wolf, he's made a lot of mistakes. His record is at the heart of part of this case. He admitted that he also killed a moose illegally in that interview.
And I asked him about the allegations that he actually threatened to kill Sarah Palin’s father. You'll hear that answer tonight on the Election Center — Wolf.
BLITZER: Drew Griffin is in Alaska for us. We'll be listening and watching later tonight. Thanks very much.
And as we've noted, Alaska lawmakers have moved up the deadline for finishing their inquiry into Governor Palin’s dismissal of the state's public safety commissioner. Yesterday, Walter Monegan spoke with CNN about his dismissal, claiming it happened because of his refusal to get rid of Palin’s brother-in-law, the trooper — you just saw him, Mike Wooten.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WALTER MONEGAN, FORMER ALASKA PUBLIC SAFETY COMMISSIONER: I felt that I was being pressured to fire him because of the constant asking questions or comments, either verbally or in e-mail, saying is this the kind of trooper that should be representing the troopers or this is not the kind we want to have as a poster child.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And there's this that's happening right now. It was an excellent line in a great convention speech — no doubt about that — suggesting she's a strong watchdog for her state's taxpayers. But now Governor Palin is in the middle of another bit of a controversy involving a plane.
CNN’s Christine Romans is here.
What's this story all about — Christine?
CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The most talked about plane in Alaska, right, Wolf?
Governor Sarah Palin, indeed, put her predecessor's luxury jet on eBay, as she says. And the sale of that 20-year-old Westwood 2 has become the symbol of her fiscal responsibility.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That luxury jet was over the top. I put it on eBay.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROMANS: The sale of that jet highlighted on the trail as evidence of her good stewardship of Alaska taxpayers’ money and drawing praise from Senator McCain on the trail today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How many saw her speech (INAUDIBLE)?
MCCAIN: Wasn't it fabulous? You know what I enjoyed the most? She took the luxury jet that was acquired by her predecessor and sold it on eBay... (APPLAUSE)
MCCAIN: And made a profit.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROMANS: But Wolf, the plane did not sell on eBay. Instead, it sold through a broker. And it did not sell for a profit, but for a loss. The state bought the plane under her predecessor against the wishes of the legislature for almost $2.7 million in 2005. Now according to Ron Heckman (ph), the broker who sold the plane, and Larry Reynolds, the businessman who bought the plane from the state, the plane sold for $2.1 — a loss, after failing to sell on the eBay auction site.
Asked about the discrepancy, a McCain spokeswoman said: “Governor Palin has been correct in saying that she put the plane on eBay.”
They did end up selling it for $2.1 million, but not on eBay — Wolf.
BLITZER: And there's some discrepancy — there's a new claim going on right now.
What's that all about?
ROMANS: That's right. The owner of the plane now says he's owed another $50,000 from the state for some maintenance issues that he did not know about. That is a dispute going on between the state and between the owner, according to the owner. And he's looking for some sort of resolution for that within the next week or so. So that's another $50,000 claim on top of this.
BLITZER: Christine Romans working that part of the story for us.
All right, Let's get more perspective now from someone who actually knows Sarah Palin and knows the governor rather well.
Meg Stapleton is a former aide to the governor. She's joining us live from Anchorage. Meg, thanks very much for coming in.
MEG STAPLETON, FORMER AIDE TO GOVERNOR PALIN: Well, thank you, Wolf. It's an honor to be here.
BLITZER: All right, let's talk a little bit about — I don't know if you know anything about this whole eBay plane story. But if you do, tell us what you know.
STAPLETON: Well, Wolf, I was actually a part of that. That was one of the number one priorities, to be honest with you, when she took office, because it was that symbol of corruption. It was a symbol of the previous entrenched establishment that she took on and succeeded in beating.
It was a luxury jet that no one in Alaska wanted the governor to ride in. The legislature didn't want the governor to ride in. They refused to appropriate the dollars. He said, I don't care. I want a luxury jet. So he bought the luxury jet anyway and he bought it for too much money. It couldn't even land on half the strips in Alaska, as it was.
And this governor said enough. This is exactly what we're fighting — wasteful spending, the establishment that says I don't care what Alaskans say, I'm going to do what I want to do. With that symbol, she said let's get rid of it. What's the best way to do it?
Before we go ahead and hire that broker, why don't we do it in a free manner, where it costs minimal dollars?
I think it was, I don't know — very few dollars. Let's put it on eBay. We put it on eBay. We let it go through a couple rounds. We didn't get the attention because he bought it for too much money. The state paid too much money for it. And eventually you had to concede and say how often are we going to pay these bills and waste more state dollars.
And so they did say — and a broker came in. We brought the broker in and said find a buyer. We found a buyer. It went for $2.1 million and we did save the state dollars. And that jet, she never stepped in. And we got rid of the symbol of corruption in Alaska.
BLITZER: So just to be precise, she said — you put it up on eBay. Unfortunately, it didn't sell on eBay, but then you sold it through a broker, just to be precise. Is that right?
STAPLETON: That is correct. At the same time, that eBay drew the attention of so many around America, who did place bids in there — not high enough that we felt was good to command an actual sale. And so that's when we brought in a broker, in the end, to make sure that it went for the top dollar that we could get. But that eBay drew the attention and drew lots of interest. And I hope it drew the attention of the person that actually ended up with it.
BLITZER: All right, let's talk about these two gentlemen, Mike Wooten, the brother-in-law, the state trooper. You just heard what he said to Drew Griffin.
Go ahead and tell us what you think — what you know about this part of the story.
STAPLETON: Well, I think it just points again to this governor and what she's done. Because she's come in here and she's trying to reform things.
Look, Wolf, I'll tell you, this is the most ethical, honest individual I have ever met in my entire life. And no offense to my family. My family is incredibly ethical and honest.
But this woman, she lives and breathes it every single moment and at every decision. In this state government, she has lived and it and breathed it. She had nothing to do with the pressure to fire Monegan over Wooten. That is absolutely ridiculous and absurd. And, in fact, Monegan just this week said there was never any pressure to fire Wooten — not from the governor, not from Todd, not from any of the member of the staff.
So for him to be going back and forth and all over and drawing on excuses that were absurd and ridiculous, we can't keep with them at this point. And it's so politically motivated, I've never seen such a political circus in the City of Anchorage.
BLITZER: Why does she want to move the jurisdiction of this investigation from the state legislature — the Alaska legislature, which has been involved in it and they said they've come up with a resolution by the end of October. She's now asking that it be moved to a separate state personnel board, of which three of the members were appointed by Governor Palin.
STAPLETON: First of all, let me correct that in terms of the personnel board, the appointees. It's true the governor appoints them. They were holdovers from the Murkowski administration. Frank Murkowski appointed that personnel board. So these are not the governor's friends. These are Frank Murkowski’s friends — again, the same entrenched establishment she took on. So let's make that perfectly clear.
Secondly, this governor — we believe the only legal way to look at this investigation is through the personnel board, because we believe that is the only place where there is jurisdiction to investigate personnel matters.
It is absolutely clear — and I was in the ethics briefings with Commissioner Monegan the moment she took office. She sat down and she had ethics supervisors — and pardon me if you can't hear me over the planes. But she had ethics supervisors brief all of us — the entire cabinet and the immediate staff — as to the direction and the appropriate channels. If you ever have a problem, if there's a perceived conflict of interest, I want you to immediately report it to a supervisor — a supervisor in the A.G.’s office. Not in her office, not the governor. She made sure to separate that.
Commissioner Monegan, if he ever had a problem ever knew the appropriate channels. And this is another appropriate channel, the personnel board.
STAPLETON: There is nothing politically motivated about it.
BLITZER: Because the accusation is that she's hired an attorney. The attorney says moved the jurisdiction to the state personnel board away from the state legislature, even though earlier she said, you know what, I have nothing to hide, let the state legislature investigate. They said they would resolve this by the end of October.
But now that she's a vice presidential nominee, it could be delayed beyond the election if it goes to this other — before this other body.
What's wrong with the state legislature completing the investigation it had started weeks ago?
STAPLETON: Because, first of all, they don't have the appropriate — we don't believe they have the appropriate legal authority. Secondly, when that legislative council took this on, Wolf, they made two things perfectly clear. One, this would never be partisan and they would keep it at arm's length. And, second, that they would never have a time line that was stated.
Arm's length has not been kept. In fact, the lead person in that, Senator Hollis French, has come out on numerous occasions on network television, as well as the national publications, that wait until you see what's coming out here. This is going to be damaging to the vice presidential nomination. This could lead to impeachment.
How the heck do you begin to have an impartial investigation when you have the lead person claiming all of these political accusations ahead of time?
Secondly, by claiming can't wait for this October surprise on the eve of the election, we're going to tell you and it's going to be damaging — that totally defeats the fact that you try to get the timing in as quickly as possible if you've already you established an end round. The concern here — and some — Representative John Coghill, from the interior region actually today sent a letter to Senator Kim Elton saying the problem here is this is no longer a nonpartisan issue, this is politically motivated and we need to make sure to remove Senator Hollis French from this because politics is definitely in (INAUDIBLE) of this process right now.
BLITZER: All right. Just one clarification, Meg. The three personnel members who were appointed by the former governor, Murkowski, did she reappoint them? Is that what you're saying? That's why they were holdovers? Did she personally reappoint them?
STAPLETON: Wolf, there were three personnel board appointees. Only one has come up and she did reappoint that person. All three were Frank Murkowski appointees and one she reappointed.
BLITZER: And so she thinks that's the way to go, that would be fair, to let someone who she was — she appointed review this very sensitive matter?
STAPLETON: I'm sorry. I'm loosing the last part of that.
BLITZER: I know. You've got planes landing.
BLITZER: You've got planes landing. Let me just repeat the question. Hold on a second.
Does she think it's fair that someone she appointed to the state personnel board should be in charge — should be — should have jurisdiction in reviewing what is obviously a very sensitive matter?
STAPLETON: Alaska state law believes it, Wolf. Alaska state law is where she turned to look to see who should handle this. And the Alaska state law dictates that for personnel problems and the ethics violations, you go to the personnel state board. This isn't the governor saying it, this is the law saying it.
BLITZER: Meg Stapleton, I know it's hard to hear me with those little planes landing and taking off. Thanks very much. I hope you'll come back and join us in THE SITUATION ROOM.
STAPLETON: Thank you. I'd be honored. Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: And congratulations to you for having your good friend, your former boss, about to be — well, she is the vice presidential nominee. And she may — and she may some day — may be vice president of the United States. You must be very excited about that.
STAPLETON: Oh, we are thrilled and excited. And she really showed America what we've all seen. And you saw it the other night at the convention. She is an incredible person and everybody falls in love with her the second they meet her.
BLITZER: Meg Stapleton.Thanks very much.
STAPLETON: Thank you.