In September, a federal report on misconduct in the Alaska National Guard was released. And since then, it’s been an open question as to why long-running allegations of cronyism, fraud and the mishandling of sexual assault reporting didn’t result in reform sooner. News outlets, including Alaska Public Media, have sued the Parnell administration for access to records that could provide insight into their response. APRN’s Lori Townsend spoke with capitol correspondent Alexandra Gutierrez about where things stand today.
The Attorney General released over a thousand pages of e-mails concerning the Alaska National Guard this weekend. Was there anything illuminating in there?
For the most part, no. Hundreds of pages were totally redacted, and a good chunk wasn’t germane to the request at all. Some complaints about the National Guard’s leadership are included, and those are interesting. Some are signed, some are anonymous. Some are reasoned, some are totally vitriolic. And they came in waves and spurts from 2010 to present day.
What have we learned about how the Parnell administration responded to them?
The documents don’t give us a lot of specifics in this regard, especially because they’re so heavily redacted. But they do show the Office of the Governor discussing allegations on a regular basis and communicating frequently with whistleblowers.
A lot of the emails are to or from Mike Nizich, Gov. Parnell’s chief of staff. He rarely gives interviews, but I sat down with him for 45 minutes to talk about when the administration started hearing about trouble in the Guard, and what it did about it. He outlined the chronology of the administration’s response and supplied copies of some of the investigation reports that they tracked through the years.
The first contact with an investigating agency was October 2010, which was before any National Guard chaplains had made serious contact with the Office of the Governor. Nizich says he visited the Federal Bureau of Investigations, after two whistleblowers reached out to him with serious allegations about drug smuggling and gun running. He stressed that it’s pretty serious and unusual for the governor’s chief of staff to report a commissioner to the FBI. Obviously, that would have serious implications if the person were found to be in the wrong. But a few weeks later, he was told that there nothing to it.
In 2012, there was a National Guard Bureau inquiry into sexual assault response that was called by Sen. Mark Begich. That came up dry. That same year, another aide to Parnell, Nancy Dahlstrom, says she went to the FBI, too. Again, nothing. In 2013, the U.S. Army Inspector General Agency looked into a complaint that then-Adjutant General Thomas Katkus’ covered up sexual assaults, and they cleared him. There was also a review by the Secretary of the Army, another Army Inspector General review, and a Department of Defense inquiry called by Sen. Lisa Murkowski. None of them found any problems. Nizich said it was like chasing ghosts.
Did the fact that there were consistent complaints raise any questions about keeping Katkus in a position of leadership even if the investigations were coming up dry?
I asked that, because it seems like at minimum, the sheer volume and persistence of complaints would indicate that Katkus was a divisive figure and that there was a low level of morale at least among some members of the Guard. Nizich said the administration understood that Katkus was making some changes that not everybody necessarily liked, but that because Katkus kept on getting a clean bill of health, so to speak, they trusted him. He also stressed that feedback they received wasn’t exclusively negative, and that Katkus did have his fans in the Guard.
Did Nizich have an explanation for why the administration hasn’t been more forthcoming with documents?
One of the interesting things about this whole crisis in confidence in the National Guard’s leadership and the governor’s response is it seems like there’s two components to this. There’s Parnell’s private response and his public response, which are actually pretty distinct things.
As far as his private response goes, we’re still learning about that. On the most skeptical end of the spectrum, one could say the administration is controlling the release of documents, there’s a lot redacted, and there’s still a lot that isn’t yet public. And on the more trusting side of things, you look at the investigation record and the documents that have been released, and take the administration at its word with the rest. Without all the information and with so many different perspectives on how this was handled, it’s hard to be certain where things fall on that continuum.
The public response is a different matter. One of the frustrating parts of the Office of Complex Investigations report that was released in September is that it describes all of this upsetting and unconscionable activity without naming perpetrators or quantifying the number of victims or the extent of fraud. With all of these open questions about just how bad it was, it shouldn’t be surprising that the public and the press have wanted answers. And when the administration didn’t appear to be forthcoming with information about how they handled things, that prompts the question of “Why?”
Nizich’s explanation for the delayed response to – and subsequent denial of – records requests into the National Guard is part logistical and part legal. He says there were large records requests, like one for all of former naturak resources commissioner and current Senate candidate Dan Sullivan’s state e-mails, made prior to the National Guard investigation which slowed the response. And he says there were enough legal privileges governing the documents to justify not releasing them – privileges that we’re definitely seeing exercised even with the documents that are now coming out on a judge’s order.
Given the politically fraught timing of this happening during campaign season, voters probably could have had a clearer understanding of what happened had more information been provided and documents released sooner.