News & Politics

Barrett: Palin’s Team Takes Swing at Voice, Whiffs

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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.