United States presidential candidate John McCain’s election campaign on Friday night suffered the body blow for which Republicans had been bracing themselves when his vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, was found to have abused her powers in pursuit of a personal feud with her former brother-in-law.
At the end of the 10-week investigation into the so-called Troopergate affair, Palin was found to have breached the ethics rules that govern her conduct as Governor of Alaska.
The findings, delivered by an investigator who had been hired by the Alaskan state legislature before she was picked as McCain’s running mate, are certain to lead to questions over his judgement, and to queries and challenges as to her suitability for national office.
Stephen Branchflower, a former prosecutor, found that Palin had breached the Alaska executive branch ethics Act, which states that “each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust”.
Branchflower also concluded that Palin’s feud with her former brother-in-law, an officer of the Alaskan state police, was “likely a contributory factor” in her decision to dismiss the head of that force, Walt Monegan. However, he did also conclude that the action had been carried out in a “proper and lawful” fashion.
A committee of the Alaskan state legislature voted to make much of Branchflower’s report public after a closed discussion of more than six hours that ended early on Saturday morning. The committee, eight Republicans and four Democrats, did not endorse the report, but voted unanimously to release it.
Palin will probably not face impeachment proceedings, with both local Democrats and Republicans saying they have little appetite for such a move.
With McCain struggling to overtake Barack Obama in the polls, however, and less than four weeks before the election, the report’s findings could barely have been worse for the Republicans.
Palin had denied all wrong-doing; her husband, Todd, sought to shoulder some of the blame by admitting that he had repeatedly complained about the trooper, Mike Wooten, believing him to be a danger to the public.
Wooten had been through an acrimonious divorce and custody battle with the governor’s younger sister. A number of complaints that the Palin family made about him at that time were upheld, and in March 2006 he was disciplined but allowed to keep his job.
Palin came into office as governor of Alaska nine months later, and then put Monegan immediately under pressure to fire Wooten.
A further finding of Branchflower’s 263-page report was that the Alaska state attorney general failed to comply with his request to release information about the case held in various emails.
A number of Alaskan Republicans attempted to halt publication of the report with a series of court cases, but the state’s Supreme Court dismissed their final bid on Thursday, paving the way for its publication.
Alaskan state Senator Gary Stevens, a Republican, objected to the report while agreeing that its contents should be made public. “I would encourage people to be very cautious, to look at this with a jaundiced eye,” he said.
With Barack Obama building up significant poll leads all week as a result of the public anxiety over the economic crisis, McCain could have done with a weekend free to concentrate on attacking his rival rather than having to deal with Troopergate.
If the election were to be held today, polls suggest Obama would win by a landslide, but the gap could still narrow. A poll published on Friday gave Obama an 8% lead over McCain in Florida, which was pivotal for the Republicans in 2000 and held by them again in 2004.
McCain is resting much of his election hopes on taking Pennsylvania from the Democrats, but polls over the past few days give Obama double-digit leads, including one of 13%. The third of the big three swing states, Ohio, is tighter but Obama has leads of between 4% and 6% in four polls and McCain is ahead by 1% in another.