Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Veterans Agency Made Secret Deal Over Benefits

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs failed to inform 6 million soldiers and their families of an agreement enabling Prudential Financial Inc. to withhold lump-sum payments of life insurance benefits for survivors of fallen service members, according to records made public through a Freedom of Information request.

The amendment to Prudential’s contract is the first document to show how VA officials sanctioned a payment practice that has spurred investigations by lawmakers and regulators. Since 1999, Prudential has used so-called retained-asset accounts, which allow the company to withhold lump-sum payments due to survivors and earn investment income on the money for itself.

The Sept. 1, 2009, amendment to Prudential’s contract with the VA ratified another unpublicized deal that had been struck between the insurer and the government 10 years earlier -- one that was never put into writing, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its November issue. This verbal agreement in 1999 provoked concern among top insurance officials of the agency, the documents released in the FOIA request show.

For a decade, until the contract was formally changed, Prudential wasn’t fulfilling its obligations to survivors of fallen service members, says Brendan Bridgeland, an insurance lawyer who runs the non-profit Center for Insurance Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

‘Violated Terms’

“It’s very clear they violated the original terms of the contract,” says Bridgeland, who is retained by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to represent consumers.

“Every veteran I’ve spoken with is appalled at the brazen war profiteering by Prudential,” says Paul Sullivan, who served in the 1991 Gulf War as an Army cavalry scout and is now executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington. “Now vets are upset at the VA’s inability to stop Prudential’s bad behavior.”

That the VA allowed Prudential to issue retained-asset accounts for 10 years while the contract required lump-sum payouts is “more evidence that the VA was asleep at the wheel for a decade,” says Sullivan, who was a project manager and analyst at the VA from 2000 to 2006.

“When grieving families check the box that they want a lump sum, they should get it. We remain disappointed and irate at the VA’s failure to provide advocacy for veterans,” he says.

State and U.S. Probes

Since July 28, when Bloomberg Markets first reported that Prudential sent checkbooks instead of checks to survivors requesting lump-sum payouts, state and federal officials have demanded the retained-asset system be investigated and reformed. The VA itself launched a probe of its life insurance program the day the first story was published.

The next day, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo launched what he called a “major fraud investigation” of Prudential and other life insurers over their use of retained- asset accounts. Since then, Cuomo’s office has issued subpoenas to Prudential and at least 12 more insurance companies.

The insurance departments in Georgia and New York have also opened probes. The U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee plans to hold hearings into Prudential’s use of retained-asset accounts to pay money owed to fallen soldiers’ survivors.

‘News to Me’

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- who was in office when the 2009 agreement was signed -- said when the VA started its probe that he had been unaware that survivors were being sent retained-asset accounts.

“Until today I actually believed that the families of our fallen heroes got a check for the full amount of their benefits,” Gates said at the time. “This came as news to me.”

As a result of the VA probe, the agency announced today that it will change its insurance program, allowing survivors to request and receive lump-sum checks.

Under Prudential’s original 1965 contract with the VA and a 2007 revised contract -- both of which were released as part of the FOIA response -- the insurer is required to send lump-sum payouts to survivors requesting them. The contract covers 6 million active service members, their families and veterans.

The checkbooks Prudential sends to survivors are tied to what the insurer calls its Alliance Account. The checkbooks are made up of drafts, or IOUs, and aren’t insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Prudential invests the survivors’ money in its general corporate account, where it can earn the insurer as much as eight times as much as it currently pays in interest to beneficiaries.

Bond Income

Prudential held $662 million of survivors’ money in its corporate general account as of June 30, according to information provided by the VA. Prudential’s general account earned 4.2 percent in 2009, mostly from bond investments, according to regulatory filings. The company has paid survivors holding Alliance Accounts 0.5 percent in 2010.

Families that were supposed to receive lump-sum payments under the terms of the contract before it was amended in 2009 may be able to successfully sue Prudential for lost interest, insurance lawyer Bridgeland says.

“Survivors would have a very strong claim for interest earned by Prudential on their money,” he says.

Prudential spokesman Bob DeFillippo says his company is following the terms of its agreement with the VA.

“Prudential is in compliance with its contract with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs,” he says.

DeFillippo declined to comment on whether Prudential was in compliance with its contract between 1999 and September 2009 or to answer any other questions. Prudential chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Strangfeld declined to comment for this story.

Useful Service

In July, DeFillippo said Prudential’s retained-asset account was a useful service for bereaved relatives of soldiers. “For some families, the account is the difference between earning interest on a large amount of money and letting it sit idle,” he said. Survivors can withdraw some or all of their money at any time, he said.

Veterans Affairs Chief of Staff John Gingrich says the agency approved use of the Alliance Account because it wanted to help survivors.

“We needed to give an option to individuals that allowed them more flexibility and time to react to the tragic family situation,” Gingrich says.

Verbal Agreement

VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts declined to say when Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in January 2009, learned of the existence of the 1999 verbal agreement and the 2009 amendment. She also declined to make Shinseki available for comment.

The VA official who verbally agreed in 1999 to allow Prudential to change the terms of the 1965 contract and begin offering retained-asset accounts was Thomas Lastowka, the VA’s director for insurance, according to Dennis Foley, a VA attorney. Prudential began sending Alliance Account kits to soldiers’ beneficiaries in June 1999.

Foley says the VA and Prudential would have been better off if they had put their 1999 agreement in writing.

“Could that have been done better?” Foley asks. “Probably. Best practice would have been to legally memorialize it at the time.”

Foley says the 1999 changes to the 1965 contract were valid, even if they weren’t in writing, because they were made by mutual agreement by people empowered to make such decisions.

“It was changed by somebody who was authorized to change it,” he says.

Contract Terms

The language of both the 1965 contract and the 2009 amendment make clear that Newark, New Jersey-based Prudential was required to adhere to the original terms until 2009, regardless of any handshake agreements in 1999, insurance lawyer Bridgeland says.

The 1965 contract says any alterations must be made in writing.

“No change in the Group Policy shall be valid unless evidenced by an amendment thereto,” it says. “No Agent is authorized to alter or amend the Group Policy.”

The VA and Prudential signed a revised contract in 2007, saying it was “amended in its entirety.” That contract, with the exact same words as the 1965 agreement, required that Prudential pay survivors with lump sums.

The 2007 revision included the same procedures in the 1965 agreement requiring any changes be made in writing. It contained no mention of the retained-asset system, or of the verbal agreement struck in 1999.

2009 Amendment

It wasn’t until Sept. 24, 2009, that the changes agreed to by VA official Lastowka and Prudential in 1999 were put into writing. The 2009 amendment allowing Prudential to hold onto death benefit payouts was made retroactive to Sept. 1, 2009, not back to 1999.

By putting in writing a change that was verbally adopted 10 years earlier, the VA is effectively trying to backdate the amendment, says Jeffrey Stempel, an insurance law professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who wrote ‘Stempel on Insurance Contracts’ (Aspen Publishers, 2009).

“They’re trying to reinvent history,” Stempel says. “You really can’t do that. This is a blatant giveaway by the VA with nothing for the agency or the people in uniform.”

Nine of every 10 survivors ask Prudential for lump-sum payments, the VA says. Prudential sends those families “checkbooks” instead of checks.

‘Disasters Do Happen’

Documents released in the FOIA request show some signs of concern within the VA after Prudential proposed the retained- asset accounts in 1998. Lastowka, the official who allowed Prudential to introduce the Alliance Accounts, said that the insurer’s “checkbook” system wasn’t protected by the FDIC.

“Disasters do happen,” wrote Lastowka, in an e-mail dated June 9, 1999, to Stephen Wurtz, the agency’s deputy assistant director for insurance.

Lastowka said in his e-mail that the lack of FDIC coverage could backfire on survivors.

“Who is responsible if Alliance goes belly up?” Lastowka asked. “I think we have to also be prepared to defend the use of the Alliance Account.”

Lastowka also asked whether Prudential had adequately disclosed to survivors that the Alliance Accounts weren’t covered by FDIC insurance. “Did Pru alert us to the non-FDIC fact?” he wrote to Wurtz. “Or was it in small print as the notice to beneficiaries?”

Documents turned over by the VA didn’t include a response from Wurtz.

‘Aware of Issues’

Lastowka says his e-mail shows the decision to allow Alliance Accounts was carefully considered.

“This e-mail demonstrates simply that the VA’s Insurance program was aware of issues that might be raised as we implemented the payment method and that we should be prepared to respond to inquiries,” Lastowka says. “We were confident that we were making a decision which would benefit survivors.”

The FOIA documents show that on June 10, 1998, Prudential gave a presentation to the VA. It included 10 pages of key points, saying the Alliance Accounts would benefit survivors because they would provide safety, flexibility in how and when to use their money, competitive interest rates and customer service.

In fine print, at the bottom of one of the pages, was this caveat: “Funds in the Alliance Account are direct obligations of The Prudential Insurance Company of America and are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.”

Sheila Bair

Twelve years later, the issue of the lack of FDIC protection in retained-asset accounts flared anew.

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said in August that consumers could incorrectly conclude that retained-asset accounts were insured by the FDIC.

“The insurance company must take care to avoid implying in any way that these accounts are in fact FDIC-insured,” she wrote in an Aug. 5 letter to state insurance regulators.

Some families of veterans have taken their complaints to court. Five survivors filed a federal fraud lawsuit in Boston on Aug. 30 against Prudential claiming the insurer has earned as much as $500 million in profits by improperly keeping beneficiaries’ money instead of paying it out in a lump sum.

The suit, Lucey vs. Prudential Insurance Co. of America, says the insurer fraudulently claims to beneficiaries that the Alliance Account is a lump sum.

‘This Ruse’

“Initiation of this ruse does not constitute payment of anything to anyone,” the suit says. “The Alliance Account is merely a bookkeeping device used by Prudential to hold on to beneficiaries’ money.”

Prudential hasn’t yet filed a response in court. Spokesman DeFillippo says he can’t comment on the case.

“It is important to note that several federal judges have rejected claims against accounts like our Alliance Account, concluding that beneficiaries are in virtually the same position they would be in had the insurer sent them a check,” DeFillippo says. He cited the dismissal of a case against MetLife Inc. on Sept. 10.

Insurance contract professor Stempel says that regardless of the outcome of that lawsuit, it’s clear that Prudential and the VA wrongly manipulated a federal contract at the expense of military members and their relatives. “At a minimum, survivors ought to be made whole with their missed interest,” he says. “The VA really seems to have had the best interests of the insurance company at heart, instead of those of the soldiers and their families.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Evans in Los Angeles at davidevans@bloomberg.net.

10 Dirtiest Fruits and Veggies

The 10 Dirtiest Fruits and Veggies -- and How to Clean Them.

Recently,one SELF staffer found flies in her celery -- blech!
Another found worms in her corn -- double blech!

Then, we came across a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) listing the dirtiest fruits and vegetables., based on the fact that they're laced with pesticides and may be more difficult to clean.

Anyone else losing her appetite.?

Here are the 10 dirtiest items in the produce aisle -- and a few cleaning tips from culinary pros:

Especially important to add to your cleaning priority list, according to the EWG: Celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, sweet bell pepper, greens (spinach, kale, collards, etc.), grapes, potatoes and cherries.

No worries if your faves are on the list.
Just be sure to give them an extra good cleaning using these expert tips:

* Give them an ice water bath..
Soak veggies such as grapes (spider webs, mold on the branches = yuck!), asparagus (those pesky little leaves trap junk) and potatoes for at least five minutes before scrubbing them down.
Add vegetable wash or baking soda for extra dirty produce.

* Choose carefully.. It's easier for bugs and chemicals to enter produce that's beaten up -- think bruising and breaks in the skin. Be superficial -- pick the best-looking fruits and veggies.

* Wash with baking soda:.
You can buy pricy produce washes, but don't bother: It's cheap and easy to play chemist and brew one up yourself.
Simply fill a bowl (reserve it only for washing produce!) with cool water and add a few tablespoons of baking soda.
Soak fruit or veggies in the water for 5 to 10 minutes, occasionally scrubbing with a vegetable brush.
This is especially important for celery (bye-bye, flies) which has thin grooves and is angled in, making it a pesticide- and dirt-trapping machine..

* Buy organic:
Obviously, when it comes to avoiding pesticides (the EWG found more than 50 different types on some of the veggies they studied), your best bet is to buy organic.

* Clean your produce promptly: .If you wait until you're ready to cook to clean your fruits and veggies, you're less likely to do a thorough job -- because by that point you're starving and just want to eat already!
So, when you get home from the grocery store or, even better, the farmer's market, clean and cut up the goods (if appropriate), then store them in air-tight containers to keep them fresh up to 33 percent longer.(Rubbermaid's Produce Saver Set)


Where's the oil? On the Gulf floor Thanks BP!

Where's the oil? On the Gulf floor, scientists say

NEW ORLEANS – Far beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, deeper than divers can go, scientists say they are finding oil from the busted BP well on the sea's muddy and mysterious bottom.

Oil at least two inches thick was found Sunday night and Monday morning about a mile beneath the surface. Under it was a layer of dead shrimp and other small animals, said University of Georgia researcher Samantha Joye, speaking from the helm of a research vessel in the Gulf.

The latest findings show that while the federal government initially proclaimed much of the spilled oil gone, now it's not so clear.

At these depths, the ocean is a cold and dark world. Yet scientists say that even though it may be out of sight, oil found there could do significant harm to the strange creatures that dwell in the depths — tube worms, tiny crustaceans and mollusks, single-cell organisms and Halloween-scary fish with bulging eyes and skeletal frames.

"I expected to find oil on the sea floor," Joye said Monday morning in a ship-to-shore telephone interview. "I did not expect to find this much. I didn't expect to find layers two inches thick. It's weird the stuff we found last night. Some of it was really dense and thick."

Joye said 10 of her 14 samples showed visible oil, including all the ones taken north of the busted well. She found oil on the sea floor as far as 80 miles away from the site of the spill.

"It's kind of like having a blizzard where the snow comes in and covers everything," Joye said.

And the look of the oil, its state of degradation, the way it settled on freshly dead animals all made it unlikely that the crude was from the millions of gallons of oil that naturally seep into the Gulf from the sea bottom each year, she said. Later this week, the oil will be tested for the chemical fingerprints that would conclusively link it to the BP spill.

"It has to be a recent event," Joye said. "There's still pieces of warm bodies there."

Since the well was capped on July 15 after some 200 million gallons flowed into the Gulf, there have been signs of resilience on the surface and the shore. Sheens have disappeared, while some marshlands have shoots of green. This seeming recovery is likely a result of massive amounts of chemical dispersants, warm waters and a Gulf that is used to degrading massive amounts of oil, scientists say.

Animal deaths also are far short of worst-case scenarios. But at the same time, a massive invisible plume of oil has been found under the surface, shifting scientists' concerns from what can be easily seen to what can't be.

For Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University biological oceanographer who wasn't part of Joye's team, the latest findings confirm that government assessments about how much oil remains — especially a report on the subject by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in August — were too optimistic.

The oil "did not disappear," he said. "It sank."

Not all scientists agree with this assessment.

Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University chemist who has analyzed the spill for NOAA, doubted much oil was resting on the bottom. He said the heavier components in oil — the asphalts — make up only about 1 percent of the oil that was spilled.

And Roger Sassen, an organic geochemist at Texas A&M University who has studied natural oil seeps, said so much oil seeps naturally into the Gulf each year that it's hard to argue that the BP spill will make a significant difference.

Nonetheless, the big questions now are exactly how much oil is at the bottom and how many organisms are being exposed to it, said Robert Carney, an oceanographer and deep-sea expert at Louisiana State University. The answers to those questions could shed some light on the unseen damage to wildlife from the oil spill.

"Deep-sea animals, in general, tend to produce fewer offspring than shallower water animals, so if they are going to have a population impact, it may be more sensitive in deep water," he said. "There is also some evidence that deep-sea animals live longer than shallower water species, so the impact may stay around longer."

At first, scientists, the media and the federal government focused their attention on tracking rainbow sheens approaching land, tar balls hitting beaches, measuring oil in marshes and scouting for oiled birds and sea turtles. But a spate of recent studies increasingly points to the deep.

NOAA's Aug. 4 pronouncement that the oil was mostly gone also indicated that some 53 million gallons remained in the Gulf. At the time, federal officials said some of that could be on the sea floor, adding that the rest was mostly broken down naturally or by the widespread use of chemical dispersants.

"As we get into weathered oil, there is more likelihood that it will get into the sediment," said Steve Murawski, chief scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of NOAA.

Getting a handle on where the oil is at extreme depths will not be easy. Scientists will have to use expensive 1,000-pound devices that look like moon landers. The spindly legged machines land on the bottom and shoot tubes into the sea floor to collect 20-inch-long samples.

The terrain is exceedingly difficult. The area where the busted BP well sits is on the continental slope, formed by millions of years of deposits from the Mississippi River. It's a region of bumps and valleys, salt domes, canyons and slopes.

Government scientists acknowledge they've not done enough to look for oil in the obscure corners of the Gulf's bottom, but promise to do a better job.

"There are plans to do a considerable amount of that" sampling, said Debbie Payton, an oceanographer with NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration. In the coming weeks, NOAA and BP vessels will sample the deep bottoms, she said.

Joye's latest discovery backs up the findings of a University of South Florida crew that reported pulling up oily sediment in August.

"What we saw were flecks, little discontinued droplets, or spots" of oil on the sediment, said John H. Paul, a biological oceanographer on the USF survey. The oiled sediment was found about 1.4 miles down in the De Soto Canyon, an underwater canyon east of the blown-out well.

Sediment brought up still needs to undergo laboratory testing to verify that the oil found on the bottom comes from the BP oil spill.

For oil to sink, it must attach itself to materials that are heavier than water, such as detritus, flecks of mud, sands and other particles. Such materials are abundant in the Gulf in places where rivers, especially the Mississippi, flush mud and sand into the open sea. Oil also can sink as it ages and becomes more tar-like in a process known as weathering.

Scientists also say the oil may be sinking because it was broken up into tiny droplets by dispersants, making the oil so small that it wasn't buoyant enough to rise. One problem with oil at the sea floor is that it will take longer to degrade because of cold temperatures in the deep.

Inside Palin's Life in Alaska

Sarah Palin's influence on the Tea Party candidates in today's primaries is just the beginning of her firepower—but could her new life in Wasilla derail a presidential run? Shushannah Walshe spoke exclusively to Palin's parents; friends who recount her nasty streak; and explores how life has dramatically changed for her.

In the piece, The Daily Beast:
• Talks to Sarah Palin’s parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, about whether she'll run

• Shows how her life in Wasilla has changed from a mom about town to rarely seen Republican rock star (she drives a Jetta to avoid being spotted and has Bristol do the shopping!)

• Speaks to Palin foes and former allies about a “mean streak” that spares no one; one describes her style as “taking a nuclear bomb when a fly swatter would have dealt with the issue.”

• Reveals her ambitions for the White House even in her early Wasilla days—before she was McCain’s VP.

• Has new details about her upcoming reality show on TLC, Sarah Palin’s Alaska (think caribou hunting, gold-mining, and dog-mushing)

• Plus, friends explain why she gave up the governorship citing the lure of money as much as the growing number of ethics complaints compiled by detractors

The first thing you notice, upon pulling up to Chuck and Sally Heath’s house in Wasilla, Alaska, is the Christmas tree of moose antlers piled up next to the driveway. Step inside the ranch-style home, and you get another unmistakable sign that you’re not in blue-state America anymore: Chuck’s prized collection of skinned and stuffed animals, the spoils of his many hunting trips—a cougar, a mountain goat, foxes, birds, and snake skins spilling over the banister. Outside, a picnic table offers dramatic views of the Chugach Mountain range. It was in this setting that the Heaths, putting aside their natural wariness of press from the Lower 48, agreed to meet a reporter, feed her fresh snap peas from their garden—and share their thoughts about their world-famous daughter, Sarah Palin.

Should she run for president in 2012? Sarah’s mom, Sally, doesn’t hesitate. “It would be a tough thing to do,” she starts to say, until Chuck interrupts: “It’s up to her, whatever she wants to do.” Sally, dressed in a green zip-up sweatshirt, continues. “I love what she’s doing now: scouting around for who would be good candidates. Who honestly could stand up and speak and not be afraid to tell it like it is?”

They don’t know her plans, the Heaths are quick to add, in their first national interview in over a year. But “it would be fun to find out some day,” Sally says, with a contagious laugh.

In other words, Sarah’s parents seem to feel the way a lot of Alaskans feel about the state’s best-known export, next to oil and salmon: torn over the wisdom of her trying to make the White House her home.

Some friends expressed caution about Palin’s future. A former adviser in DC who remains friends with Palin said he doesn’t want to see her run. “I think she’s got a great life. She’s got the world by the tail right now,” this friend says. “I mean, she’s earning a lot of money, which she never had before. She is speaking to adoring crowds wherever she goes. She’s greatly appreciated by those she supports and she doesn’t have to take all the grief that you have to take when you are either running for or holding office.”

Others who are less favorably disposed point out that Palin’s aborted tenure as governor left a lot of bad blood in Alaska; they worry that her baggage would be dragged back onstage in another national campaign, and hurt the state.

Sarah Palin (Charles Krupa / AP Photo)
But fans and foes alike warn against the dangers of selling Palin short.

“Four years ago, right after she was elected, I was quoted as saying, ‘The graveyards of Alaska are covered with the bones of people crossed by Sarah Palin.’ While I said crossed, what I meant was underestimated,” said Alaska Republican pollster David Dittman. “And that’s still true. Consistently, whether it’s the local city council in Wasilla, no matter where she’s gone—say, on the cusp of achieving something—there’ve always been detractors that say it can’t happen, it won’t happen, this is why she won’t be successful. That’s why I will say, to this day, the political graveyards of Alaska—and other places—are filled with the bones of people who underestimated Sarah. And it’s still happening.”

Adele Morgan, one of Palin’s oldest friends in Alaska, can attest to that. She recalls approaching Palin in 2005, when she first heard that her childhood pal and basketball buddy was running for governor.

“I had heard that just from the grapevine so I went and asked her,” Morgan recalls. “I thought that was quite the feat at the time. And I said, ‘What are your plans?’ I was just kidding around and I said, ‘So do you want to be president?’ And that was way back then and she said, ‘Well maybe.’ And I was like, ‘Wow you got some goals there, girl!”

“If I was advising her on one thing: Never forget your roots, never forget where you come from,” says Eddie Burke, a Palin family friend.

The ambition doesn’t always sit well with Alaskans, who have a saying: “We don’t care how they do it on the Outside.” But they clearly care when the Outside suddenly lands on their doorstep. Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright refers to the town as “Hollywood North” because of the media focus and the parade of tourists from the Lower 48 that now visits hoping to get a glimpse of Sarah’s backyard.

She doesn’t spend nearly as much time there as she used to amid her speaking engagements, book tours, and appearances for midterm candidates across the country. (Indeed, until her endorsement of insurgent candidate Joe Miller in the state’s GOP Senate primary, who nosed out incumbent Lisa Murkowski, Palin’s influence had not been felt much at all since she resigned the governorship in 2009.)

Friends in Wasilla say she doesn’t drive the family’s Escalade SUV anymore and instead has gone back to the VW Jetta she used when governor to avoid being spotted.

“Every time I drive it, people know who it is and I can just drive the Jetta and nobody pays any attention,” Palin told friend and Wasilla neighbor Bev Perdew.

When she is in-state, she spends most of her time secluded in her Wasilla home on Lake Lucille. She’s alleviated the need to pop out to do TV, having recently added a studio as an extension to her house. In the past, she was often spotted shopping at Target and Walmart; these days, she sends Bristol to the store, to avoid being mobbed by friends and well-wishers.

On one hand, “you can’t do anything because everybody’s watching when you go to the bathroom,” says Eddie Burke, a Palin family friend who says he lost his job as a radio talk-show host after skirmishing with a Palin critic who worked at the same station. On the other, Burke says, she’s facing the allure of big-money book deals. “So did she leave for money? Probably so.”

Burke says he still chats with Todd about snow machining (Alaskan for snowmobiling) and was even involved in preparations with Palin for her rally with Glenn Beck. “If I was advising her on one thing: Never forget your roots, never forget where you come from. I think there was a part of her that kind of got caught up. If I was to advise her, she should not forget where she came from.”

He says he told this to Todd, creating some “friction.”

Walt Monegan knows what it’s like to have friction with the Palins on the grand scale. His firing as Palin’s public safety commissioner led to the Troopergate investigation. Monegan is still struggling with the fallout years later. The former Anchorage police chief still breaks down in tears when reminiscing about his time on the beat. If Palin does make a bid for the presidency, Monegan is sure to be held up by opponents as a case study in how she can wield power vindictively. He strongly cautioned against a future President Palin.

“I think it’d be a train wreck. You need to have a thick skin in public service, especially if you’re going to be a boss of any sort. People are very opinionated; they will go up and tell you what they think about you, where you’ve gone wrong. You have to listen to them. You don’t shut them off, you don’t turn your back on them, and you certainly don’t attack,” Monegan said. “In her case, she is not mature enough or doesn’t understand that or she has such a large goal that she feels she knows what’s best for everybody, doesn’t really need any other input.”

Palin’s foray this summer into the Alaska Senate race left similarly bruised feelings, exacerbating a long-running feud with the Murkowski family, which has divided the state’s Republican ranks. It all started when former Sen. Frank Murkowski bypassed Palin when, upon election as governor, he decided to appoint his daughter to fill out the remainder of his term in Congress. Palin returned the favor by ousting Murkowski in the GOP 2006 gubernatorial primary. The fighting continued this summer, when Palin’s decision to back Joe Miller helped propel him past Lisa Murkowski for the GOP Senate nomination.

Murkowski and her allies thought the move was personal. But SarahPAC staffer Rebecca Mansour (perhaps the aide closest to Palin) said she did not endorse Miller to get back at the family. "She did not endorse Joe Miller to get back at Lisa. Endorsing someone everyone thought would lose would not be a way to get back at Lisa. Her endorsement of Joe Miller was about principles, not personalities,” Mansour said. “It was about Alaska and her belief that Alaska should have the freedom to develop its natural resources under federal control so that it can become more of a giver to the nation through resource development instead of a taker of federal pork."

Murkowski’s campaign manager was John Bitney, who, until recently, was a Palin ally. A high-school friend who ran her 2006 campaign for governor, Bitney had a falling out with Palin when she discovered Bitney was having an affair with a family friend, a woman to whom he is now married. Bitney is skewered in Palin’s book, Going Rogue, and says she sometimes uses her power to intimidate—“taking a nuclear bomb when a fly swatter would have dealt with the issue,” as he puts it.

“If you are perceived having been someone who has criticized her or been on the other side of her or someone that she’s gone after, [there’s a feeling] that somehow she can hurt you,” Bitney says. [People] “are scared of her.” Bitney said. “That would really concern me to have that kind of power.” Bitney today says “I would love to have peace. I’m asking for a truce.” (Says Mansour: “I’ve worked for her for over a year, and I have not seen any mean side to her. She’s not mean like that. I don’t get that criticism. She's always been very kind and considerate with me.”)

In smoothing over some of these rifts, Palin’s parents are a great asset. Monegan, the ex-public safety commissioner, says he hasn’t had any contact with Palin or her inner circle. But last winter, he ran into Chuck Heath at a dinner celebrating Alaskan seafood. Heath ran over to Monegan and gave him a handshake and hug, telling him, “That’s just politics. I still like you.” Heath even went over to Monegan’s table to meet his family and regale them with stories of his daughter’s book tour.

Nobody knows the kind of sacrifices a new national campaign would entail quite like Palin’s parents, who hit the trail from time to time in 2008. The night before the balloting, Chuck told an audience in Nevada that he was the one who taught Sarah “how to field-dress a moose;” on Election Day, he joked, she was going to “field-dress a donkey,” much to the crowd’s delight. These days, Sally often accompanies her daughter on trips outside Alaska, helping out with the grandkids, traveling to Washington for the Glenn Beck rally last month. (Chuck, for the time being, stays put: “I don’t like to go during hunting season,” he says.)

Has their daughter’s fame affected them? “I still run with the same derelicts I did 30, 40 years ago and buy whatever beer’s on sale,” says Chuck with a laugh. “Hasn’t changed me a bit.”

They both said they don’t see their daughter much (Chuck saying he keeps track of where she travels by watching Fox News) because she is on the road so often, but when they do they don’t talk with their daughter about work.

“We don’t talk politics. We talk hunting, fishing, sports, and family. Just normal family, none of the political stuff,” her father said. “She hears enough advice from everyone and criticism from everyone and she doesn’t need to hear my bad advice. We hunt together, fish together, travel together and we don’t socialize out in the limelight anymore because she’s mobbed. She can’t walk into a store anymore. We go to a lot of gatherings together, but she has to sneak in.”

Chuck Heath says his daughter has been busy this summer working on her show for TLC, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, and gave a glimpse into what it will look like. He went caribou hunting with Palin and the TLC team and his favorite episode was their gold-mining adventure, “The people in Nome treated us so well and we found not a lot of gold. But enough gold to make it interesting.”

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast.
She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar.
She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.