Monday, September 22nd, 2014

The Palin 'rape kit' controversy

SUMMARY: Bloggers contend Palin supported a city policy that charged sexual assault victims for forensic exams. We find the truth is murky.

As bloggers have scrutinized every aspect of Sarah Palin’s record as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, many of them have criticized a city policy that sought reimbursement for forensic exams from victims of sexual assaults. The bloggers contend Palin supported the policy and have criticized her for allegedly being insensitive toward rape victims.

To check out their allegations, we examined documents from the city and the Alaska Legislature and interviewed people in Wasilla, advocates for sexual assault victims and a former state legislator. We found the truth is murky. Although Wasilla had such a “rape kit” policy while Palin was mayor, there is no evidence that she explicitly endorsed the policy. But nor have we found any evidence that she opposed it.

The policy sought to have rape victims’ health insurance companies reimburse the city for the $500 to $1,200 cost of a forensic exam that is conducted after a sexual assault. Presumably, some of the cost might have been passed along to the victim through requirements for deductibles or co-payments, although victim advocates say they don’t know of anyone in the small town who had to pay such a fee.

The policy generated little if any controversy during the first four years after Palin became mayor in 1996. Anne Kilkenny, a civic activist in Wasilla who has written a widely circulated e-mail criticizing Palin, told PolitiFact she does not recall that the issue ever came up.

The policy came to light briefly in 2000 when the Alaska Legislature passed a law that required state and local law enforcement agencies pay the full cost of the exams.

“We would never bill the victim of a burglary for fingerprinting and photographing the crime scene, or for the cost of gathering other evidence,” then-Gov. Tony Knowles said when he signed the bill into law. “Nor should we bill rape victims just because the crime scene happens to be their bodies.”

Legislators and activists have said the law was prompted by Wasilla and several other communities with a similar policy.

But a search of the committee minutes for the bill found no mention of Wasilla or Palin. Nor could we find any indication that city officials spoke up about the bill until after it was passed, when Police Chief Charlie Fannon was quoted in the local newspaper The Frontiersman saying he opposed it.

“In the past we’ve charged the cost of exams to the victims’ insurance company when possible,” he told the newspaper. “I just don’t want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer.” He estimated the new law would cost his department $5,000 to $14,000 per year.

His comments suggest the city sought the money more from insurance companies than the victims themselves. The paper quoted him as saying that "ultimately, it is the criminal who should bear the burden of the added costs.”

Fannon could not be reached for comment. His phone number has been disconnected. City officials, who have been swamped with calls and public records requests about Palin, referred PolitiFact to items on the city Web site. (They've gotten so many requests they created a page of Questions & Answers Concerning Former Mayor Palin . But those documents provide an incomplete picture because some don’t include details prior to 2000, when Wasilla had the policy.

There’s no evidence that Palin ever commented on the rape kit policy. Bloggers and other critics contend that she must have known about it because she approved the city budget.

“If she was against charging for the rape kit, as mayor she could have made the decision not to charge for the rape kit,” Andrew Halcro, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill when he was a state legislator, said in an interview. He ran for governor as an independent in 2006 but was defeated by Palin.

City documents are inconclusive. The budget documents we reviewed were signed by Palin but don’t explicitly mention the policy.

In response to recent criticism, the McCain-Palin campaign said in a statement that Palin “does not believe, nor has she ever believed, that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence gathering test."

Yet the campaign has not provided any evidence that Palin ever opposed the policy.

So where does that leave us?

Wasilla clearly had the policy. Bloggers have portrayed it as a heartless rule seeking money from rape victims, but they have neglected to mention that the policy seems to have been aimed more at getting money from insurance companies than from victims.

We can’t find that Palin ever commented on the policy, pro or con. But as mayor, she indirectly endorsed it by approving city budgets that relied on the revenue. So we find the bloggers' charge to be Half True.