By Bill Poovey, Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The government paid nearly $2,500 for Sarah Palin’s husband to come to the trial of a Tennessee college student who hacked into her email — even though Todd Palin never testified, court records show.
In all, the government paid more than $29,000 to fly members of the Palin family and other witnesses to Knoxville, send a prosecutor to Alaska for research and pay other travel expenses, according to the Department of Justice records obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request. Air travel totaled about $18,600, and hotel bills amounted to nearly $3,300.
The thousands of dollars spent by prosecutors helped them win a conviction on one felony and one misdemeanor charge against David Kernell, who finishes his 10-month sentence on Wednesday. Prosecutors have said that Kernell’s punishment for the hacking during Palin’s failed 2008 vice presidential bid should deter any hackers who considered targeting candidates in next fall’s presidential election.
The former Alaska governor, her daughter Bristol and an aide were among the witnesses called to the stand, but the chief prosecutor said he decided Todd Palin’s testimony wasn’t needed. Sarah and Bristol Palin told jurors that they harassed and their lives were disrupted after Kernell hacked into Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! Email account and made screenshots public that included personal email addresses and cell phone numbers.
Records show Todd Palin received $2,244.30 as reimbursement for airfare from Alaska to Tennessee, along with $122 for meals and incidentals and an attendance fee of $120. He was listed as a fact witness.
“We subpoena a lot of witnesses that we think we might need,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Weddle said, adding about a dozen witnesses in all were subpoenaed. “We decided his testimony was no longer necessary for purposes of trial.”
An attorney for the Palins, John Tiemessen of Fairbanks, Alaska, said in an email that Todd Palin was under subpoena and flew to Knoxville prepared to testify. Tiemessen declined to make Todd Palin available for comment, and an email seeking comment sent to Sarah Palin’s political action committee wasn’t immediately returned.
The 34 pages of Justice Department expense documents obscured the names of witnesses 58 times, making it impossible to discern how much in travel expenses was incurred by Bristol and Sarah Palin and the other witnesses. It also wasn’t clear if any other witnesses who flew in from Alaska wound up not testifying.
But one three-page form that authorized reimbursement of unusual expenses showed payment was made to Todd Palin. The section of the form where Weddle provided justification for the unusual expense was blanked out.
Records also show it cost $2,461 for the prosecutor to take a September 2009 trial preparation trip to Alaska.
Weddle said Todd Palin received the “same allowance anybody else would be entitled to,” based on a contract rate of $40 per day. The form specifies that attendance days include travel.
“There’s no bonus because you’ve written a book or you are married to a former vice presidential candidate,” Weddle said.
Several former prosecutors who weren’t involved in the case said it’s difficult to compare the cost of a case with the gravity of the charges or the outcome.
“You don’t know exactly how things are going to take shape,” said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble of Chattanooga. “It’s just the nature of trials. Unfortunately you have to bring witnesses in from a long way.”
He said there are cost-benefit analyses after some cases but: “There’s a lot of subjectivity in that and it’s a hard line to draw.”
Still, Humble described the felony conviction as a “complete win.”
Aside from travel expenses, the Justice Department said there were no records for the overall cost of the trial.
J. Tom Morgan of Decatur, Ga., a former district attorney, said that when former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis made a comment about sunshine as the best disinfectant “he wasn’t talking about the federal court system.”
“It sounds like a lot of money on a hacking case, but once you go to trial you’ve got to be prepared for anything and everything,” he said.
Morgan said prosecutors have discretion in spending and typically if they have a family member tag along they will also have them testify to justify it. Though Morgan couldn’t speak to the circumstances of the Palin case, he said sometimes family members do get a “free ride.”
Kernell, 24, who was a University of Tennessee student when arrested, was scheduled for release Wednesday after getting credit for good behavior. He was tried on four felony charges. Jurors acquitted him of one, deadlocked on another and reduced a third to a misdemeanor illegal access charge. He was convicted of obstructing an investigation by trying to hide his computer activity.
Defense attorney Wade Davies declined to comment about the trial expenses. Kernell’s father, state Rep. Michael Kernell, D-Memphis, said an appeal of the conviction is pending and declined comment.
Davies contended during the trial that Kernell had no criminal intent and that the hacking amounted to a prank. Kernell tapped into the Alaska governor’s widely publicized Yahoo! email account by correctly answering a series of personal security questions. He didn’t testify at the trial.
Sarah Palin told jurors that the hacking disrupted the lives of her family and close friends when their e-mails and phone numbers were publicized on the Internet. Bristol Palin testified that she received harassing calls and text messages.
Palin has remained highly visible since she and running mate U.S. Sen. John McCain lost the 2008 general election. That star power was on display at the trial in 2010, when she attracted smiles from jurors on the way to the witness stand. The first questions from Weddle was, “May I call you Governor Palin?”
Palin, who quit the Alaska governorship in 2009 midway through her term, was considered a possible GOP presidential candidate this year until — with polls showing her popularity with voters had waned — she announced that she was passing on the race.