By Ken Dilanian and Matt Kelley, USA TODAY
WASILLA, Alaska — In 2000, Alaska lawmakers learned that rural police agencies had been billing rape victims or their insurance companies $500 to $1,200 for the costs of the forensic medical examinations used to gather evidence. They quickly passed a law prohibiting the practice.
According to the sponsor, Democrat Eric Croft, the law was aimed in part at Wasilla, where now-Gov. Sarah Palin was mayor. When it was signed, Wasilla's police chief expressed displeasure.
"In the past, we've charged the cost of exams to the victims' insurance company when possible," then-chief Charlie Fannon told the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, the local newspaper. "I just don't want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer."
Now that Palin is the Republican nominee for vice president, Democrats such as former Alaska governor Tony Knowles — who signed the rape-kit bill into law and was defeated by Palin in 2006 — are raising the issue to question Palin's commitment to women's issues and crime victims. Palin appointed Fannon after firing his predecessor shortly after she took office in 1996.
"In retrospect, I would have asked the female working-mother mayor of that town why her police chief was against this," said Croft, the former Anchorage state representative.
Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella said in an e-mail that the governor "does not believe, nor has she ever believed, that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence-gathering test."
"Gov. Palin's position could not be more clear," she said. "To suggest otherwise is a deliberate misrepresentation of her commitment to supporting victims and bringing violent criminals to justice."
Comella would not answer other questions, including when Palin learned of Wasilla's policy or whether she tried to change it. The campaign cited the governor's record on domestic violence, including increasing funding for shelters.
Knowles criticized Palin to USA TODAY, and again Wednesday in a teleconference organized by Democrats. "It seems like one of those pieces of legislation that you can't imagine it would ever have to be written," he said.
Until the 2000 legislation, local law enforcement agencies in Alaska could pass along the cost of the exams, which are needed to obtain an attacker's DNA evidence. Rape victims in several areas of Alaska, including the Matanuska-Susitna Valley where Wasilla is, complained about being charged for the tests, victims' advocate Lauree Hugonin, of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, told state House committees, records show.
In cases when insurance companies are billed, the victims pay a deductible.
Fannon told the Frontiersman that the tests would cost the department up to $14,000 per year. He said he would rather force rapists to pay for the tests, not taxpayers. Fannon, who is no longer police chief, could not be reached for comment Wednesday; his home phone number has been disconnected.
It is not known how many rape victims in Wasilla were required to pay for some or all of the medical exams, but a legislative staffer who worked on the bill for Croft said it happened. "It was more than a couple of cases, and it was standard practice in Wasilla," Peggy Wilcox said, who now works for the Alaska Public Employees Association. "If you were raped in Wasilla, this was going to happen to you."
After calling Wasilla Mayor Dianne Keller for comment Tuesday, USA TODAY was instructed to submit a public records request, under which the city has 10 days to respond. As of Wednesday, the city had not responded to a request for records reflecting Wasilla's prior policy, including when it took effect and the cost to sexual assault victims.
In 2000, there were 497 rapes reported in Alaska, FBI statistics show. That's a rate of 79.3 per 100,000 residents, the highest in the nation.
Nationally, victims' advocates have for years reported scattered instances of rape victims being required to pay for their forensic tests, says Ilse Knecht of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington. Those complaints have subsided somewhat after Congress in 2005 passed a law requiring states to provide rape exams free of charge or reimburse victims for the costs, says Knecht, whose group supported the provision.
"The reason we passed the legislation was that we saw it was prevalent enough to be a pretty considerable problem," Knecht says. "There are no other victims of crime that end up being billed for evidence collection."
The Senate version of the legislation that included the rape-exam provision was sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was one of 58 co-sponsors; Republican presidential nominee John McCain was not.