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A.B. Culvahouse: The Man Who Vetted Sarah Palin
Comments () | Published April 21, 2011

Culvahouse flew to New York to meet with Davis and McCain. They discussed the vetting strategy over dinner. Culvahouse says two rules were established: No one would get on the list of contenders without McCain’sapproval, and no one would get off unless McCain wanted that person off.

Culvahouse wanted to run the vetting from his law firm, O’Melveny & Myers, as a separate operation from the campaign, which was developing a reputation for public infighting. That way, if there were any leaks, the culprit would be within arm’s reach.

He assembled a team of about 30 lawyers. All either practiced at O’Melveny or were trusted alumni of the firm.

“That is an unusual model,” notes Potter, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who has also been counsel to other campaigns, including McCain’s 2000 presidential bid and George H.W. Bush’s 1988 run.

Photograph of A.B. Culvahouse by Stephen Voss

Secrecy was so paramount to Culvahouse, Davis, and McCain that relying on a single law firm was viewed as the best approach. And though dozens of lawyers were on the vetting team, as an extra precaution Davis communicated only with Culvahouse. “To maintain a real thin layer of information running back and forth, I never dealt with anyone else,” Davis says.

After Palin was chosen, the campaign’s obsessive efforts to prevent leaks came under fire as details—such as the fact that the vetting team hadn’t gone to Alaska to interview locals and dig through the archives of Palin’s hometown newspaper—surfaced.

Asked whether, in hindsight, prioritizing secrecy over a more thorough local investigation was the right decision, Culvahouse avoids a direct answer: “In vetting, that’s always a tradeoff that you make. With the other people on the short list, we had similar difficult calls to make. In a small state or a small town, it’s even more acute.”

Culvahouse began with a list of 26 possibilities given to him by the campaign. He organized his team into five or so smaller groups, assigning VP contenders to each of the sub-teams.

“I was assigned a couple of the more obscure candidates,” says Ted Frank, the former O’Melveny lawyer who would later listen in as Culvahouse interviewed Palin by phone. “It’s kind of ironic that the two I was assigned, [Senator Joseph] Lieberman and Palin, turned out to be such high-profile candidates.”

The process for the 26 on the long list was blind—none of them knew they were under consideration. Culvahouse’s operation relied solely on public databases to research their backgrounds and write 40-to-50-page reports about each.

Once the campaign narrowed the list to five names, the process became much more intensive. The people on the short list—Lieberman, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Florida governor Charlie Crist—had personal interviews with Culvahouse and responded to 74 written questions, which he had formulated.

Some questions were tailored to each candidate. Prior to sending the questionnaires and conducting the interviews, Culvahouse corresponded with either the lawyer or the accountant of each contender to parse legal and financial histories. Once he had this information, he determined what issues required questioning.

Palin was added to the short list late in the game, meaning Culvahouse and his team had to condense this process into a few days, whereas they’d had months for the other five people.

Lieberman had been the presumed frontrunner, though discontent in the Republican base about his pro-choice stance on abortion was troublesome. Culvahouse also had uncovered a potential legal problem in picking someone who wasn’t a Republican. Several states have “sore loser” statutes that don’t allow for bipartisan tickets. Putting the independent Lieberman on the ticket raised the specter of a possible trip to the Supreme Court if McCain were to pick him, and no one wanted that.

As the clock was running out, Davis says McCain asked to have at least one woman on the short list. His advisers went back to the long list and plucked out Palin’s name. “I recommended Sarah to the senator to look at amongst the other finalists,” says Davis.

Did Culvahouse balk at the time crunch? “No,” says McCain. “He’s very capable.” Frank seconds the assertion that if Culvahouse was feeling any stress, he didn’t show it.

It fell to Frank to write a final vetting report about Palin before Culvahouse’s personal interview with her. In just about 43 hours, Frank produced 40 to 45 pages about the governor from Alaska. His main concern was an ongoing ethics investigation into Palin’s dismissal of Walt Monegan, Alaska’s public-safety commissioner. Monegan had speculated that Palin’s decision was tied to his reluctance to fire a state trooper who was the governor’s former brother-in-law. The media later dubbed the affair Troopergate.

“It was understood that you don’t pick somebody who has this sort of investigation hanging over their head,” Frank explains. “No matter how thoroughly you investigated, there’s no way to know if there’s an e-mail sitting somewhere that somebody could say is a smoking gun.” Frank says that concern was conveyed to the campaign.

Though Frank wrote the report, Culvahouse was involved in it. He reviewed drafts and was kept apprised of the major issues that surfaced.

Palin disclosed details, such as her husband’s DUI arrest, in the questionnaire she returned to Culvahouse. She divulged Bristol Palin’s pregnancy during the phone interview.

“I asked her how she thought her daughter’s pregnancy would play out politically,” says Culvahouse. “She says, ‘That’s for smarter people than me to figure out. I don’t know.’ ”

Culvahouse says he found the response impressive: “She had a very good sense of her strengths and weaknesses. I mean, she knew what she didn’t know.”

Frank sat in on the interview because he had led the research into Palin’s background and knew the details of her history. O’Melveny & Myers partner Robert Rizzi, former chairman of the firm’s tax practice, was there because he had reviewed her tax returns. Culvahouse led the interview, but both men also asked questions.

In a speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association in April 2009, Culvahouse said vetting McCain’s vice-presidential candidates was something he had “been preparing all of my life to do.” He described how he had helped Senator Howard Baker when President Gerald Ford considered him as his running mate. And as White House counsel to Reagan from 1987 to 1989, Culvahouse led the office that vetted an estimated 200 presidential nominees during those two years. In his private law practice, he has represented more than 20 Cabinet-level or deputy Cabinet-level nominees of the Bill Clinton and both Bush administrations.

But none of those efforts came under the kind of scrutiny that Culvahouse’s role in putting Palin on the 2008 Republican presidential ticket did.

Next: Sarah Palin—High Risk, High . . . Reward?

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