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Palin Took Contributions From Fundraising Scheme At Center Of Ted Stevens Scandal

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WASHINGTON — GOP vice presidential pick Sarah Palin accepted at least $4,500 in campaign contributions in the same fundraising scheme at the center of a public corruption scandal that led to the indictment of Sen. Ted Stevens.

The contributions, made during Palin's failed 2002 bid to become Alaska's lieutenant governor, were not illegal for her to accept. But they show how Palin, a self-proclaimed reformer who has bucked Stevens and his allies, is nonetheless a product of a political system in Alaska now under the cloud of an ongoing FBI investigation.

It's the latest in a string of revelations that have forced John McCain's campaign to defend his choice and the thoroughness of the background check of Palin, 44, a little-known governor who is new to the national stage. Palin stunned delegates at the GOP convention Monday when she announced through the McCain campaign that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, is five months pregnant.

With the convention still abuzz, the list of potentially embarrassing details grew Tuesday:

_Palin sought pork-barrel projects for her city and state, contrary to her reformist image.

_Her husband once belonged to a fringe political group in Alaska with some members supporting secession from the United States.

_A private attorney has been authorized to spend $95,000 to defend her against accusations of abuse of power.

_She has acknowledged smoking marijuana in the past.

And this: Bristol Palin's boyfriend, Levi Johnston, plans to join the family of the Republican vice presidential candidate at the GOP convention, the boy's mother said. He left Alaska on Tuesday morning to join the Palin family in St. Paul, Minn.

Defending his choice and the team that helped pick her, McCain said Tuesday that "the vetting process was completely thorough." Campaign advisers at the convention in St. Paul, Minn., said Palin filled out a survey with 70 questions, including: Have you ever paid for sex? Have you been faithful in your marriage? Have you ever used or purchased drugs? Have you ever downloaded pornography?

McCain's aides maintained that Palin was a finalist from the start

But a senior Republican familiar with the search, who requested anonymity when speaking without authorization, said Palin had all but fallen from the radar until late in the summer when McCain _ apparently unsatisfied with his working list _ asked for more alternatives. Suddenly, she was a finalist.

When she was introduced as McCain's running mate last week, Palin portrayed herself as a political maverick in McCain's mold: "I've stood up to the old politics as usual, to the special interests, to the lobbyists, the big oil companies and the 'good old boy' network,'" she said.

But Alaska's first female governor has at times benefited from Alaska's entrenched political system.

As Palin campaigned unsuccessfully in 2002 to become lieutenant governor, she received contributions from executives at VECO Corp., a powerful Alaska oil field services company. Company founder Bill Allen has admitted the company steers its donations through a "special bonus program" in which executives received money and the company instructed them to donate it to favored politicians.

Allen pleaded guilty to bribery and corruption charges. He admitted the program violated federal tax laws and said it was used to keep his political allies flush with cash.

"If they're working with the oil industry, I'd like to help with their campaigns," Allen testified last year in the corruption trial of a former state lawmaker.

Steve Schmidt, senior adviser to the McCain campaign, dismissed the idea that a few campaign contributions years ago in any way diminished Palin's record as a reformer. "Gov. Palin's record fighting corruption and taking on these issues in Alaska speaks for itself," he said Tuesday.

Since Palin's nomination last week, these issues also are raising eyebrows:

_In her earlier career as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Palin hired a lobbyist to help the tiny town secure at least 14 earmarks, worth $27 million between 2000-2003. McCain has touted Palin as a force in his long battle against earmarks.

_Her husband, Todd, twice registered as a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, a fierce states' rights group that wants to turn all federal lands in Alaska back to the state. Sarah Palin herself never registered as a member of the party, according to state officials, though party members said she attended a 1994 convention with her husband.

_The state legislature is investigating whether she had Alaska's public safety commissioner fired after he refused to dismiss a state trooper who had divorced Palin's sister. Lawyer Thomas Van Flein said he is representing Palin both personally and in her official capacity as governor. He can bill the state up to $95,000.

_Palin opposed the U.S. government's listing of a variety of animals as endangered, including the polar bear and the beluga whale, both of which inhabit areas also rich in oil and natural gas.

_Palin previously acknowledged she smoked marijuana but said in a 2006 interview she no longer used the drug. "I can't claim a Bill Clinton and say that I never inhaled," she said.

_ Palin's management style has come under scrutiny. When taking over as mayor of Wasilla, she asked top officials to submit resignation letters, resulting in several departures, including that of the police chief. The chief claimed it was because he supported her opponent in the mayor's race.

_Under her leadership this year, Alaska asked for almost $300 per person in requests for pet projects from Stevens, one of McCain's top adversaries. That's more than any other state received, per person, from Congress.

Palin has had her share of run-ins with Stevens, including a dustup earlier this year in which Stevens accused Palin of not being enthusiastic enough about his efforts to bring federal earmark money to Alaska. She has also called on Stevens' son, Ben, to resign as national committeeman for the state party.

She was among the first Alaska Republicans to urge Stevens to answer questions about the FBI investigation.

In the fundraising corruption probe, VECO founder Allen is cooperating with an FBI investigation that has already sent several state political figures to prison. He is expected to be the Justice Department's star witness at Stevens' trial later this month when he testifies about home renovations and other gifts he provided the longtime senator _ gifts Stevens is charged with concealing on Senate documents.

Palin received $500, the maximum amount allowed by law, from Allen and VECO vice president Rick Smith. Several other VECO managers, including Pete Leathard, who came up with the idea for the special bonus program, also donated the maximum. Allen's son, a VECO employee, also donated $500. All the checks were donated the same day, except for Leathard's, which was dated two days after the rest.

John Cramer, one of Palin's treasurers for her 2002 campaign, said he doesn't remember any indications that the money came from a special company program.

The donations aren't evidence of corruption, and Palin is not among the lawmakers under investigation in the VECO case. But they undermine arguments that Palin has broken from Alaska's Republican machine, including Stevens.

"If you can take on Ted Stevens and that crowd in Alaska, you can handle the Russians," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, told ABC News this week.

But Palin didn't reach the governor's office picking fights with the Senate's longest-serving Republican. She was a director for a nonprofit group Stevens set up to increase the number of Republican women in government. Stevens also campaigned for Palin in 2006 and appeared in a political advertisement for her.

Palin has had her share of run-ins with Stevens, including a dustup earlier this year in which Stevens accused Palin of not being enthusiastic enough about his efforts to bring federal earmark money to Alaska. She has also called on Stevens' son, Ben, to resign as national committeeman for the state party.

She was among the first Alaska Republicans to urge Stevens to answer questions about the FBI investigation. But she did not urge him to resign after his indictment, as she did after a state lawmaker was indicted. She said Stevens "has dedicated his life to the betterment of the state."

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Associated Press writers Sharon Theimer contributed to this story from Washington and Ron Fournier contributed from St. Paul, Minn.