ANCHORAGE, Alaska - An independent investigator has found evidence that former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin may have violated ethics laws by trading on her position in seeking money for legal fees, in the latest legal distraction for the outgoing Alaska governor as she prepares to leave office this week.
The report obtained by The Associated Press says Palin is securing unwarranted benefits and receiving improper gifts through the Alaska Fund Trust, set up by supporters.
An investigator for the state Personnel Board says in his July 14 report that there is 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 the "official" legal defence 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 defence fund, and that the complaint be resolved without a formal hearing before the board.
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 $500,000 in legal fees, and she cited the mounting toll of the ethics probes as one of the reasons she is leaving office.
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 $150 per person. Organizers declined to say how much it has raised, and had hoped to raise about $500,000. A Webathon last month brought in about $130,000 in pledges. Kristan Cole, the fund's trustee, said the fund has been frozen pending the personnel board's review.
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 defence 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 defence fund."
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.
"It's an absolute shame that she would continue to keep the Alaska Fund Trust Web site up and running," Chatman told the AP.
At least 19 ethics complaints have been filed against Palin, most of them after she was named the running mate for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Most of those have been dismissed, and Palin's office usually sends a news release with the announcement.
The multiple ethics complaints include an investigation by state lawmakers over Palin's firing of her public safety commissioner in the so-called Troopergate scandal.
John Coale, a Washington lawyer who helped set up the fund, called the probable cause finding "crazy," adding that if upheld, it would mean that no governor could ever defend themselves against frivolous ethics complaints.
"If this complaint is true, there's no way to defend yourself" as governor, Coale said. "Anybody can keep filing ethics complaints and drive someone out of office even if you're a nut."
Coale said that unlike other states, Alaska's governor has no legal counsel's office to defend the governor from allegations brought against the governor in her official capacity.
Coale said he recommended creation of the legal defence fund, a common practice in Washington. The Web site for the Palin fund cites similar accounts created for Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and other prominent politicians.
Associated Press reporter Matthew Daly in Anchorage contributed to this report.