How McCain-Palin Nearly Blew Alaska

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A key and attention-grabbing section of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s new book, Game Change, focuses on the less-than-adequate vetting of Sarah Palin by John McCain’s presidential campaign. The campaign’s internal report on the Alaskan governor was thrown together in less than 40 hours, according to the book, and the report’s author, a Washington lawyer named Ted Frank, included a disclaimer: Given the time constraints, the vetters might have missed something.

What the media missed (and what’s not reported in Game Change) was Frank’s full role in the McCain-Palin campaign—a role that could have caused a big political headache for Palin had it been known at the time. Frank was part of a team of lawyers scrutinizing potential candidates for vice president. After working on the vetting report, Frank was dispatched to Alaska to help with damage control on “Troopergate”—the quasi-scandalous allegations that as governor, Palin had pressured the state public safety commissioner to fire her ex-brother-in-law, a state trooper who had allegedly made death threats against Palin’s family in the midst of a nasty divorce and custody dispute with her sister.

At the time, Frank decided that it was best that his work for the McCain-Palin campaign remain undisclosed. The reason? He had been an outspoken critic of the 1994 federal jury verdict that required oil conglomerate Exxon to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to some 30,000 Alaska residents after the Valdez ran aground and spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. That verdict had been extremely popular in Alaska.

For years, Exxon (now ExxonMobil) had challenged the decision in various courts, successfully knocking the award down to $2.5 billion. But despite that victory, it kept fighting the verdict, and by 2008 the case was back in the news as its appeal headed to the Supreme Court. And Frank, a prominent tort reform advocate and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was a staunch defender of Exxon in the media. He argued that Exxon had already suffered enough after paying out more than a billion in criminal fines, several more billions in clean-up costs, and millions more in compensatory damages. In June 2008, Frank told NBC’s Anchorage affiliate that,”The question is whether it’s fundamentally fair to award billions of dollars in damages simply because it’s such a big company.”

Shortly afterward, the Supreme Court (for other reasons) reduced the $2.5 billion award to $500 million. That decision deeply upset many Alaskans—including Palin. The governor described the court’s verdict as a “huge disappointment,” unfair to the fishermen and coastal communities devastated by the spill. She said the case, which had dragged on for 14 years, “breaks our hearts” and was an example of “justice delayed as justice denied.” Frank, on the other hand, wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks later that the Supreme Court should have slashed the payout even more.

Later that year, Frank was in Alaska, doing all he could to preserve Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy. He says that McCain officials asked if he wanted his role in the campaign to be public and that he decided his recent statements about the Exxon case would be “an off-message distraction given the local politics.” As Palin hit the stump, she had to contend with various problems in Alaska, and her approval rating at home—now watched throughout the nation—was slipping. If Alaskans had learned that their governor was being assisted by one of the leading foes of the Exxon Valdez award, it would not have helped her campaign. Some political observers might even wonder why the McCain campaign took the risk of putting Frank on the protect-Palin beat.

Although his cover was blown by Game Change, Frank—unlike many other McCain staffers—isn’t talking out of school to trash Palin. He says her own account of the vetting process in Going Rogue—she says McCain’s lawyers “knew stuff about me that I had long forgotten”—is accurate. And he also notes, for the record, that Todd Palin is “the handsomest man I’ve ever met.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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