By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
Along with the winks and folksy "doggone" moments early in her debate with Joe Biden last week, Sarah Palin repeated her familiar claim to the title of "maverick," declaring that "as a governor and as a mayor," she's had a "track record of reform" and has now "joined a team of mavericks."
Despite the free fall that her polling numbers went into after her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric, that branding as a "reformer" has been resilient. Introduced skillfully before tens of millions during an intense surge of interest six weeks ago, it's been hammered home with repeated soundbites.
But the label doesn't hold up under close scrutiny. From the controversy that catapulted her to the governorship, to her ties to the indicted patriarch of Alaska's GOP, to the multilayered nexus of lobbyists and Big Oil interests around her, and, finally, to the Wasilla sports complex that capped her mayoral career, the myth of Sarah Palin, reformer, withers under inspection.
PALIN'S CLAIM to fame as an Alaska reformer—that she risked her career to expose the chairman of the state GOP—is revisionist. In fact, Palin supported the methane-drilling project that helped sink GOP boss Randy Ruedrich before she later decided she was against it—a mirror of her flip-flop on the infamous Bridge to Nowhere. And her reversal had more to do with seizing a political opportunity than following her conscience.
In 2003, Ruedrich, an oil executive known for his ability to raise industry contributions for the party, was appointed to the powerful Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (OGCC) by Governor Frank Murkowski at the same time as Palin, who had finished her second term as Wasilla mayor the year before. Murkowski had given Palin the plum position to compensate for overlooking her when he appointed his own daughter Lisa to the U.S. Senate seat he vacated when he was elected governor in 2002. Palin's near-win in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor earlier that year—losing to the first Alaskan of native ancestry ever elected to state office—had made her a statewide star. She had filmed commercials and stumped for Frank Murkowski that fall, so he owed her. But she rejected other top posts that he offered until she got the one she wanted—a position that allowed her to live at home and commute to Anchorage, rather than relocate to Juneau. She certainly also saw the commission appointment as a stepping-stone, and as late as October 2003, she told reporters that she was considering a race against Lisa Murkowski in the upcoming 2004 special senate election.
When Murkowski made Palin the $122,400 chairwoman of the OGCC, one of her jobs was to oversee commission ethics, meaning she was charged with reporting any possible ethics violations by staff or commission members to the governor's office. By her own account, she first did that in September 2003, reaching out to a top Murkowski staffer about Ruedrich. But what she complained about then, according to a source familiar with these conversations, was Ruedrich's party business on state time. She said nothing about his blatant championing of a methane-drilling project by a company called Evergreen Resources—even though she'd witnessed it herself at a standing-room-only community meeting in August. Palin and Ruedrich went to the meeting because the commission had oversight powers over the drilling, and homeowners in the Wasilla area where she was once mayor were up in arms over the effects they feared it would have on their property and drinking water.
Chris Whittington-Evans, chair of the citizens' group that helped organize the meeting, says that Ruedrich presented a slideshow very similar to one the company itself had presented at any earlier session. Palin remained quiet through most of the meeting, though Evans recalls that she was questioned about a possible conflict of interest she might have. Palin was then chairing the campaign committee of a pro-Evergreen candidate for Borough Mayor of Mat-Su, the county that includes Wasilla. The candidate, Charlie Fannon, her former police chief, had taken $2,500 in donations from three Evergreen executives and a consultant, though community outrage eventually forced him to return some of the money. Ruedrich had given Fannon $500.
The same three executives had also just given $1,747 to Palin's 2002 campaign for lieutenant governor. In fact, with the low campaign-finance limits in Alaska, Evergreen was the second-largest giver to both Palin and Fannon. While still mayor, Palin had backed an Evergreen-designed bill that allowed the state to override local objections to the drilling and permitted an ordinance—introduced by her closest ally on the city council authorizing methane extraction—to become law. But the focus of the question at the community meeting was Fannon. Palin had asked Fannon to run and had filmed an ad for him. He was the only candidate she'd ever contributed to—and her father contributed as well. Evans says he found it odd when she insisted that there was no conflict between backing "a big promoter of methane-drilling" and sitting in judgment on the project.
That's what Tim Anderson, the Borough Mayor who beat Fannon and opposed the drilling, says now as well: "You could say that it was a conflict of interest" for Palin to be on the commission and supporting Fannon. Anderson was also at the August meeting and says that Palin sat up front with Ruedrich and Evergreen. "They were trying to convince the people that drilling underneath their homes wasn't a big problem." Fannon's narrow loss to Anderson, wrote the local newspaper The Frontiersman, confirmed the political potency of the methane issue. In early November, Evans sent Palin an e-mail detailing the case against Ruedrich and demanding that he be fired from the commission. Palin finally acted, forwarding the Evans e-mail to the state's attorney general. Two days later, Ruedrich resigned.