Last month, Gov. Sean Parnell released a brutal federal report on misconduct in the Alaska National Guard. Sexual assault reports were mishandled, and alleged perpetrators were promoted. Military aircraft were used for personal reasons. Two state officials have already resigned as a result of the abuses.
Now, the governor is playing defense, too. With only a few weeks left before Election Day, Parnell is rejecting claims that he did not respond to the problems quickly enough.
At 9:15 a.m., Gov. Sean Parnell announced he was holding a press conference to take questions about the Alaska National Guard alongside Brigadier General Jon Mott, who had come in from Connecticut to help with the reform effort. Less than two hours later, Parnell stood at the podium alone, and with First Lady Sandy Parnell in the audience instead. He explained the catalyst for the appearance was a headline in Thursday’s Alaska Dispatch News.
“‘Parnell Took Years To Act On National Guard Misconduct.’ I believe that statement was false and misleading,” said Parnell.
Parnell directed his remarks to Guard members, even though none were in the room and the brigadier general wasn’t there because of federal rules preventing him from holding press conferences. Parnell asked guardsmen to “question” news coverage that is critical of his response to their concerns, and reiterated that he checked in with recently ousted Adjutant General Thomas Katkus after each complaint his office received.
“Every time I heard an allegation, every time I got an allegation of misconduct — or my office did — we investigated that with Guard leadership,” said Parnell.
Over the course of a half hour, Parnell provided little new information and instead mostly defended his course of action. He did offer that there will be further leadership changes within the National Guard, but would only say he knew of three instances of this and would not name names. Parnell also told reporters that he did not anticipate any changes to his own staff.
“To my knowledge, everybody in my office acted in good faith. They acted reasonably. They did it timely. And I have [seen] nothing to the contrary at this point,” said Parnell. “I do have complete faith and confidence in my staff.”
Parnell called for an investigation into the force this spring, but Alaska National Guard chaplains first approached his office with concerns in 2010. In the following years, the chaplains remained in touch with the Parnell administration and urged him to take action. In e-mails sent in 2012, one chaplain called attention to the promotion of officers who were complicit in sexual assault and engaged in fraud. Many of the allegations in the e-mails were found to have merit, according to a recent report by the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations. Parnell says the reason for the lag time between these complaints and the federal probe was that he trusted Katkus that the appropriate processes were being followed.
“I think I was misled on a number of occasions about how well the system was working,” said Parnell. “There’s not question I was. I mean the report demonstrates that.”
When asked by reporters why he trusted the very leadership that was the subject of complaints, Parnell says there are some things he wishes he could have done differently. But he takes umbrage at news coverage that suggests he did not do enough.
“I took full responsibility — and I take full responsibility — for not discovering what I discovered in February and it taking that length of time to get there,” said Parnell. “But I will not take responsibility for a headline that says Parnell failed to act.”
A half hour after Parnell cut the press conference short to catch a flight, a group of a dozen protestors gathered outside his Anchorage office. They were with Alaska Women for Political Action, and they waved signs that said “Stop the Violence” and “Hold Parnell Accountable.”
Barbara McDaniel, who leads the Alaska chapter of the National Organization of Women, doesn’t think Parnell’s response went far enough. She believes Parnell has not released enough information on how his office handled National Guard complaints.
“’Trust me’ — When someone says that to you, you need to watch out,” says McDaniel. “I’m a big fan of trust but verify.”
McDaniel says she’s disappointed that the governor has turned down multiple records requests into how the Office of the Governor responded to complaints made about the Guard, including a request that was made by APRN. She’d like to see some of those documents come out before the November election, in order to just how effectively Parnell’s office handled National Guard concerns. But she’s not optimistic that will happen.
“Well, if I was running for office, I would definitely want to slow it down and have everything come out after I possibly won,” said McDaniel.
Parnell and his policy director, Randy Ruaro, have said they are taking a “broad view” in applying a privacy privilege and rejecting requests for state e-mails that may concern sexual assault victims.