Campaign money hurts Palin's outsider image

A burst of new revelations raises more questions about the Alaska governor and how carefully she was scrutinized by the McCain campaign.

Sarah Palin 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Sarah Palin 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
With the speech of her life looming Wednesday night, a burst of new revelations has raised more questions about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and how carefully she was scrutinized by the McCain campaign. For one thing, it was reported that she accepted at least $4,500 in campaign contributions in the same fundraising scheme at the center of a public corruption scandal that led to the indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens. The contributions, made during Palin's failed 2002 bid to become Alaska's lieutenant governor, were not illegal for her to accept. But they show how Palin, a self-proclaimed champion for clean government, has been part of an Alaska political system that is now under the cloud of an ongoing FBI investigation. It's the latest in a string of disclosures that has raised questions about whether John McCain's presidential campaign had sufficiently investigated the background of Palin, 44, a little-known governor new to the national stage. Palin stunned delegates at the Republican convention Monday when she announced through the McCain campaign that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is five months pregnant. With the convention still abuzz, the list of potentially embarrassing details grew Tuesday: -Palin sought pork-barrel projects for her city and state, contrary to her reformist image. -Her husband once belonged to a fringe political group in Alaska, with some members supporting secession from the United States. -A private attorney is authorized to spend $95,000 to defend her against accusations of abuse of power. -She has acknowledged smoking marijuana in the past. And this: Bristol Palin's boyfriend, Levi Johnston, plans to join the family of the Republican vice presidential candidate at the convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, the boy's mother said. Palin gives her main address on Wednesday. Defending his choice and the team that helped pick her, McCain said Tuesday "the vetting process was completely thorough." Campaign advisers at the convention said Palin filled out a survey with 70 questions including: Have you ever paid for sex? Have you been faithful in your marriage? Have you ever used or purchased drugs? Have you ever downloaded pornography? McCain's aides maintained that Palin was a finalist from the start But a senior Republican familiar with the search, who requested anonymity when speaking without authorization, said Palin had all but fallen from the radar until late in the summer when McCain - apparently dissatisfied with his working list - asked for more alternatives. Suddenly, she was a finalist. When she was introduced as McCain's running mate last week, Palin portrayed herself as a political maverick in McCain's mold: "I've stood up to the old politics as usual, to the special interests, to the lobbyists, the big oil companies and the 'good old boy' network,"' she said. But Alaska's first female governor has at times benefited from Alaska's entrenched political system. As Palin campaigned unsuccessfully in 2002 to become lieutenant governor, she received contributions from executives at VECO Corp., a powerful Alaska oil field services company. Company founder Bill Allen has admitted the company steers its donations through a "special bonus program" in which executives received money and the company instructed them to donate it to favored politicians. Allen pleaded guilty to bribery and corruption charges. Steve Schmidt, senior adviser to the McCain campaign, dismissed the idea that a few campaign contributions years ago in any way diminished Palin's record as a reformer. "Gov. Palin's record fighting corruption and taking on these issues in Alaska speaks for itself," he said Tuesday. Since Palin's nomination last week, these issues also are raising eyebrows:
  • In her earlier career as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Palin hired a lobbyist to help the tiny town secure at least 14 earmarks, worth $27 million between 2000-2003. McCain has touted Palin as a force in his long battle against earmarks.
  • Under her leadership this year, Alaska asked for almost $300 per person in requests for pet projects from Stevens, one of McCain's top adversaries. That's more than any other state received, per person, from Congress.
  • Her husband, Todd, twice registered as a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, a fierce states' rights group that wants to turn all federal lands in Alaska back to the state. Sarah Palin herself never registered as a member of the party, according to state officials, though party members said she attended a 1994 convention with her husband.
  • The head of the firm hired to defend Gov. Palin in a state ethics investigation was previously her family's lawyer and is permitted to bill the state up to $95,000 for work in the current case. It involves the dismissal of public safety commissioner Walt Monegan after he refused to fire a state trooper who had divorced the governor's sister. In a legal filing on Tuesday, Palin said she wants Alaska's personnel board to review the allegations surrounding her firing of the commissioner.
  • Palin opposed the US government's listing of a variety of animals as endangered, including the polar bear and the beluga whale, both of which inhabit areas also rich in oil and natural gas.
  • Palin previously acknowledged she smoked marijuana but said in a 2006 interview she no longer used the drug. "I can't claim a Bill Clinton and say that I never inhaled," she said. In the fundraising corruption probe, VECO founder Allen is cooperating in an FBI investigation that has already sent several state political figures to prison. He is expected to be the Justice Department's star witness at Stevens' trial later this month when he testifies about home renovations and other gifts he provided the longtime senator - gifts Stevens is charged with concealing on Senate documents. Palin received $500, the maximum amount allowed by law, from Allen and VECO vice president Rick Smith. Several other VECO managers, including Pete Leathard, who came up with the idea for the special bonus program, also donated the maximum. Allen's son, a VECO employee, also donated $500. All the checks were donated the same day, except for Leathard's, which was dated two days after the rest. John Cramer, one of Palin's treasurers for her 2002 campaign, said he doesn't remember any indications that the money came from a special company program. The donations aren't evidence of corruption and Palin is not among the lawmakers under investigation in the VECO case. But they undermine arguments that Palin has broken from Alaska's Republican machine, including Stevens.