Sarah Palin attorney Thomas Van Flein spent his July 4 in Fairbanks, Alaska, issuing a four-page statement warning news organizations not to investigate allegations printed by the Voice last October.
Talk about waving a red flag in front of a bull.
Van Flein’s famous client had announced her upcoming resignation as Alaska’s governor the day before, and the attorney wanted everyone to know that Palin’s sudden and unexpected withdrawal had nothing to do with our story, ‘The Book of Sarah‘ [October 7] which, of course, made many wonder just the opposite.
Van Flein threatened to sue Huffington Post, MSNBC, the New York Times and The Washington Post or anyone else who might “re-publish” an Alaskan blogger’s suggestion that Palin resigned because she was under federal investigation in connection with “embezzlement” charges (the FBI denies that they are investigating Palin about anything and we never used the word embezzlement or anything like it). These charges, the lawyer explained, “stem from” an investigation “pertaining to the construction of the Wasilla Sports Complex,” the $14.7 million hockey rink launched while Palin was mayor of the small Alaskan town. The Voice story, which examined the linkage between Palin and several contractors who worked on the complex, is the only piece cited by Van Flein, though he denounced it as “one of many fabrications about Sarah Palin.”
Van Flein’s statement — which derides “modern journalism” for “abhorring” due diligence and factchecking — is actually longer than the section of the Voice story that examined the connections around the complex, but he does not challenge a single fact actually presented in our story.
While the story detailed large contributions to Palin over the years from several complex contractors, it was the work that at least one of the major contractors did in the same time period on Palin’s new house off Lake Lucille that drew Van Flein’s pointed ire.
The lawyer does not dispute that Spenard Builders Supply provided thousands of dollars in building material for the house, built in Palin’s final year as mayor, 2002, which is also precisely when the complex project was approved. Nor does he deny that Spenard provided supplies for the complex. He just says that Spenard was the Home Depot of Alaska at the time and that everyone got their supplies from the company (we actually described Spenard as the state’s “leading supplier of wood, floor, roof” and other materials).
But then, Van Flein points out in the next paragraph that Todd Palin’s family “owns a hardware and building supply business” nearby, raising a question we didn’t even mention: why not get the supplies from the family business? Van Flein does not deal with the other references to Spenard in our piece — namely that it sponsored Todd’s snowmobile team that won races bringing tens of thousands of dollars to the Palin family and that it subsequently hired Sarah herself to do a statewide TV commercial for the company.
The real point with Spenard, which Van Flein ignores, is that building permits aren’t required in Wasilla, making it impossible to determine if Spenard was the only complex contractor to work on the house. The timing of the construction of the house — it was completed two months before Palin’s term as mayor ended — is what also invites skepticism. She was running for lieutenant governor at the time, her first statewide race — an odd time to build a house, especially when your husband and constant companion on the campaign trail is acting as “the general contractor,” a claim that Van Flein now makes.
Greta Van Susteren asked Todd during the campaign last year if he had built the house and he replied: “Myself and some buddies that were contractors helped me put it together.” Yet Palin’s campaign manager in the 2002 race told her authorized biographer Kaylene Johnson: “Todd would make a lap around the state in 24 hours just to put up signs.” Sarah explained her narrow loss to Johnson by saying “I was working full time as mayor, I’d just had Piper, we were building a house, and Todd was working on the slope.” All of that makes it a curious time to build, and a hell of a workload for Todd, unless the family wanted to build it while Sarah Palin was still mayor, and still pushing the controversial complex (voters approved funding it that May by a narrow 20-vote margin despite Palin’s support).
Van Flein also tries to soft-pedal Palin’s role in the hockey complex, though just about every biographical piece on her six-year tenure as mayor — including the pro-Palin Wall Street Journal — concluded that it was “the biggest project Palin undertook as mayor”. Van Flein even goes so far as to cite a story in the Wasilla paper that criticized her at the time for not pushing it hard enough, as if it were not her baby.
The lawyer acknowledges that she appointed the seven-member steering committee that oversaw the project and picked the contractors. Van Flein insists she wasn’t the chair of the committee, a charge we never made. He does say that Curtis Menard did chair it — a dentist whose son was the godfather of Palin’s son and whose family has been called “a second family” to Sarah Palin. He doesn’t acknowledge that three other members of the committee were her employees — her public works director, her city engineer and the man she appointed as the project manager for the complex. Nor does he mention that another member of the committee was the architect selected to do the complex who also happened to be the son of the GOP boss who helped get Sarah into politics in the first place and was described as her political mentor.
Van Flein dismisses this web of connections — to say nothing of the donations from contractors that he ignores — by saying that “people in a small town appear to know one another, support one another, and take on big projects together.” He says “apparently that’s uncommon in New York.” Actually, it’s quite common here, and journalists here write about these incestuous networks whenever we discover them, just like Alaskan journalists do. And there’s nothing that lawyers who threaten lawsuits without uncovering any substantive errors can do about it.
Research Credit: Johanna Barr, Georgia Bobley, Tom Feeney Jr.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 6, 2009