Palin's record undercuts reform, review finds

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose reformer image took a hit in a report concluding she abused her powers to settle a family score, has skirted state ethics rules before for personal benefit, according to an Associated Press review of records.

Palin's first try at statewide office, after six years as mayor of Wasilla, was an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 2002. To raise money, she improperly used her City Hall office and equipment, city records show. A year later she would make headlines by blasting a fellow Republican for, among other things, improperly using his government position to boost his campaign.

Then, in 2006, Palin won the governor's race with a vow to reform state ethics. But in less than two years, she has taken actions that violated her own stated ethical standards:

She pummeled opponents for giving oil companies and other businesses too much control of state government. Yet she appointed the founder of an engineering firm that received $6.8 million in state business as head of the transportation department.

She has accepted dozens of gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars since taking office, including two free trips last year that she failed to report on disclosure forms, despite criticizing state legislators for the gifts they take.

Even critics concede that Palin deserves credit for working with legislators to toughen state ethics laws and for providing more information to taxpayers about state spending. But they say she often claims the ethical high ground when she hasn't been above questionable behavior herself.

“She's very good at reading the public's discontent and pandering to it,” said Larry Persily, who worked in the governor's Washington, D.C., office until resigning this year.

Palin faced questions during her 2006 gubernatorial race about her use of the Wasilla mayor's office four years earlier to run for lieutenant governor. Palin used city staff and office equipment – including a fax machine, computers for e-mail and a City Hall phone number – to run her campaign, city records show.

She apologized for those transgressions in 2006, but only this month acknowledged to the AP that the city initially paid for a campaign flight in that 2002 race and that weeks later she reimbursed the city.

“According to people who worked with her at the time, the travel agency inadvertently billed the city rather than her personally,” McCain campaign spokesman Taylor Griffin said in a statement. “She reimbursed Wasilla and the campaign later reimbursed her. It's an example of Gov. Palin's commitment to the highest standards of ethics.”

Palin brushed the issue aside when she ran for governor, arguing it was an opponent's smear campaign.

She has cast herself as Alaska's ethics watchdog. In her most dramatic move, she revealed in 2003 that the state's GOP leader was campaigning from his state job. She then challenged incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski two years ago on a platform of government reform.

After her victory, Palin's biggest political splash was from attacking the big oil companies that she said ran the state. She promised voters that her administration would avoid cozy relationships with business.

But one of her first cabinet appointments didn't live up to that pledge.

Leo von Scheben, a co-founder of Anchorage-based USKH engineering firm, took over the state's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and his firm's state business increased, records show. USKH received $6.8 million in state transportation contracts last year, up 13 percent from the year before.

Von Scheben stopped taking a salary and all benefits from the company when he stepped into the state job. But he didn't sever all financial ties. Von Scheben receives annual stock payments that he arranged before he left the company in 2007 that will continue for 10 years, according to his financial disclosure forms.

Von Scheben said he has recused himself on projects pursued by the firm.

Palin claims passage of broad ethics reforms as an accomplishment following state corruption scandals. But Palin didn't report as gifts two free trips she received in 2007 as legislators were debating the new ethics law.

“This is simply a rare oversight, nothing more,” campaign spokesman Griffin said when asked about the omissions by the AP.