It started as a bitter family dispute over an ugly divorce and allegations ranging from illicit moose hunting to death threats in the small Alaskan town of Wasilla.
By Philip Sherwell in New York
Last Updated: 5:55PM BST 11 Oct 2008
But that feud exploded into the race for the White House after an independent investigator concluded that Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, unlawfully abused her power as Alaska governor to push for her former brother-in-law to be sacked as a state trooper.
The politically-charged finding ensured that the so-called Troopergate controversy dominated political headlines barely three weeks before the Nov 4 presidential election.
The report found that Mrs Palin violated a state ethics law prohibiting public officials from using office for personal benefit – in this case, pursuing her family’s grudge against Trooper Mike Wooten following his messy divorce from her sister Molly.
It also highlighted the unusually intense involvement of her husband Todd, a part-Eskimo champion snowmobile racer and self-styled First Dude, in state politics – a role that some critics say amounted to that of a “shadow governor”.
Stephen Branchflower, a former prosecutor, was appointed by the Alaskan legislature to investigate Mrs Palin’s firing of her public safety commissioner Walter Monegan in the summer.
Mr Monegan said he had come under intense pressure from the governor’s husband and aides to dismiss Trooper Wooten, and believed his refusal to do so was the reason for his removal.
Mr Branchflower concluded that Gov Palin acted within her authority in dismissing Mr Monegan, who she said had disagreed with her on the budget. But the investigator also said that the Wooten stand-off was “likely a contributory factor”.
Mrs Palin did not mention the report at a rally in Pennsylvania yesterday. But boarding her campaign bus, she said: “If you read the report, you will see that there was nothing unlawful or unethical about replacing a cabinet member. You got to read the report.”
A campaign spokeswoman for Barack Obama declined to comment on the ethics report and the Democratic candidate did not raise the subject at his rallies.
The inquiry would have been barely noticed outside Alaska, America’s largest but least-populous state, had Republican presidential nominee John McCain not shocked the political world by choosing the first-term governor as his White House running mate.
Her dramatic elevation to the national stage suddenly brought intense political scrutiny to the events that occurred in Wasilla, Alaska, a town of 9,000 people where Mrs Palin began her political career as mayor.
Her husband Todd led the campaign for Mr Wooten to be dismissed, saying that he feared for his family’s security. The trooper strenuously denied allegations that he threatened to kill Mrs Palin’s father during the divorce and child custody battle.
He had previously been suspended by Alaska police officials for five days for various infractions, including using a Taser on his step-son – on a low strength setting, and at the boy’s request – and shooting a moose without a permit.
The role of Mr Palin, who unusually for a political spouse often sat in on his wife’s meetings as governor and was also copied on in some official emails, came under close scrutiny from Mr Branchflower.
His report concluded that she knowingly “permitted Todd Palin to use the governor’s office and the resources of the governor’s office, including access to state employees, to continue to contact subordinate state employees in an effort to find some way to get Trooper Wooten fired.”
Further, it said, she “knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda.”
Long after the details are forgotten, Troopergate will be regarded as an insight into Mrs Palin’s political style. Supporters will point to a strong leader who knows what is right and wrong; her critics will say it shows a politician with a small-town mentality who pursued grudges and vendettas and was overly reliant on her husband.
The role of Mr Palin, who has become a major attraction in his own right with the Republican faithful on the campaign trail, will be assessed in similar split fashion – either as a loyal husband and father defending his family, or as an interfering and intimidating presence at his wife’s side.
Under Alaska law, the state’s Personnel Board – which is conducting its own investigation – must now decide whether it also believes that Mrs Palin violated the ethics law. It can refer the matter to the state Senate president for disciplinary action and impose a fine of up to $5,000, but there will be no further action before the presidential poll.
The report inevitably became instant political fodder in the febrile atmosphere of the last month of the election campaign.
State senator Hollis French, a Democrat heading the bipartisan panel that appointed Mr Branchflower, had predicted that the investigation could deliver what is known in US politics as an “October surprise” – a potentially game-changing development ahead of the presidential election.
His comments fuelled claims by the McCain campaign that the investigation was a politically-motivated witchhunt – even though it was launched before the surprise pick of Mrs Palin for the national ticket.
The campaign released its own findings on Thursday, saying the Palins were justified in their actions because they were trying to protect their family from Mr Wooten who, they said, had made threats of violence.
Mrs Palin’s spokeswoman Meg Stapleton emphasised that the report concluded that “the governor acted within her proper and lawful authority” in her treatment of Mr Monegan. She dismissed the abuse of power finding as “a tortured argument to find fault, without basis in law or fact”.
Mrs Palin’s personal lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, accused Mr Branchflower and Sen French of attempting to “smear the governor by innuendo”.
But Mr Monegan also claimed vindication. “It sounds like they’ve validated my belief and opinions,” he said.
Senate President Lyda Green, a strong critic of Mrs Palin within the state Republican party, said the report did not reflect well on the governor. “The problem with power is that people pay attention to it,” she told the Anchorage Daily News. “And it’s very easy to get beside yourself and use it in the wrong way. And we do have to leave personal business at home.”
But another Republican legislator Bob Lynn criticised the findings. “She and Todd Palin were trying to defend their family,” he said. “I think any normal person would do the same.”
Gov Palin had initially agreed to co-operate fully with the investigation before her vice-presidential nomination, but she subsequently changed her mind and declined to give testimony. Several of her aides were served with subpoenas to force them to speak to Mr Branchflower.
In a separate development, the state has also been ordered to comply with a court order issued on Friday requiring Gov Palin and other officials to preserve all e-mails issued from private accounts that concern state affairs.
It has emerged that she used two Yahoo addresses to conduct gubernatorial business – a highly unusual arrangement – after one was recently hacked and details were posted on various websites.