One of the biggest issues of last year’s governor’s race was the state of the Alaska National Guard. A federal report had concluded that it was plagued with problems, ranging from mishandling of sexual assault reports to a general lack of trust in leadership. For months, media outlets tried to get records on then-Gov. Sean Parnell’s response, and the struggle culminated in a lawsuit. The executive branch was ordered to release thousands of pages of documents related to the Guard just days before an election that Parnell lost.
Recently, Gov. Bill Walker has re-released many of those same records, along with new ones. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez has been combing through both sets of documents.
TOWNSEND: So you spent about a month reviewing these documents. What went into that?
GUTIERREZ: Well, between the Parnell release and the Walker release, you’re talking 7,000 pages of documents. I mean, you had eight attorneys plus support staff working on this stuff for about half a year, so it’s a lot of paper. When you print the records out, it’s enough to fill three banker’s boxes. The process of going through them was kind of like playing a very long and very serious version of one of those spot-the-difference games.
Were there many differences between the two batches?
There were a lot, but nothing that really fundamentally changes my understanding of how the National Guard was managed.
Breaking it all down, there were about 1,300 unique documents that the Walker administration released. That includes everything from short one-line e-mails to lengthy reports. When you tally it all up, about two-thirds of those records were technically new. Which is to say, they have new document ID numbers. With the way the Department of Law tracks records, an e-mail chain with 20 different responses would produce 20 separate documents, even if we think of it as a single thread. So, in reality, even a lot of the new documents were just variations on records we’ve seen previously.
Now, of the documents where we had a Parnell version to compare to a Walker version, about 40 percent had redaction differences. In some cases, that meant more information was released in the Walker version, and in others, it just meant that different privileges or fewer privileges were used as a justification to black out information.
Did you see any trends in terms of what was released and what wasn’t?
Where you could compare the Parnell and Walker documents, the Walker documents tended to be more surgically redacted. Like there was one complaint from a National Guardsman that was sent to the Governor’s office in 2013, alleging that his wife was being harassed by a fellow guardsmen and that guardsmen were using state resources inappropriately. The Parnell version totally redacted this complaint, while the Walker version basically just blacked out names.
There were also some cases where the Parnell redactions would be claimed using multiple privileges, so if you want to challenge the redaction, you would have to challenge it in five or so separate ways before it could legally be released. Those would often be cut down to one or two privileges in the Walker versions. So, you’re still not getting the information off the bat, but you would only have to come up with a couple of arguments to appeal the decision.
You talked to the Department of Law about these differences. How did they explain them?
I was told that the instructions given to the attorneys were actually basically the same between both administrations. The Parnell administration didn’t want to release any records when they were asked for them, but once a judge ordered them to hand the documents over, the directive was to err on the side of disclosure while still exercising the appropriate privileges. The explanation given for the differences was actually logistics.
Here’s Cori Mills, a spokesperson for the department.
MILLS: The main factor in why you got somewhat different results was because of the timing. We were really rushed in the October-November timeframe and crunched to try to get out as many documents as quickly as possible, since the Department of Law hadn’t really become involved until the lawsuit was filed.
That meant they couldn’t exactly be painstaking about the process.
MILLS: Because of the short timeframe, we just didn’t have the time to do a more laser-focused review and try to focus on, you know, ‘here are the three words we need to redact’ versus ‘okay, we just need to redact this whole paragraph because there’s definitely information in there that’s privileged.’
Basically, it’s like the difference between actually cleaning your home versus just throwing everything in the closet, because you know you have guests coming in ten minutes.
Was there anything that shocked you or surprised you with this new release?
For lack of a better term, there wasn’t really a smoking gun in any of this. I had some help on the review from a few other reporters, and I think KTOO’s Jenny Canfield may have put it best.
CANFIELD: I don’t think this new set of documents was very enlightening. It just added more confusion to an already big pile of confusion.
Like we are talking David Lynch movie-style confusion. That said, there were some interesting things that came out. Like, before this new release, I didn’t know that thy Parnell administration had actually turned to a media and crisis consultant named Matt Mackowiak to deal with damage control.
It was also interesting just seeing how the Parnell administration handled its operations and how little business the governor himself actually did via e-mail. KTOO’s Jeremy Hsieh, another reporter who worked on this, brought this up when talking to Jenny.
HSIEH: I worked on the Palin e-mail dump when she was the vice presidential candidate, too. It was her Yahoo mail and she communicated in e-mail. And that seems like a big contrast with Parnell. There’s very little — there might not have been any, actually. There were very, very few e-mails that Sean Parnell had actually written.
CANFIELD: I don’t think I saw any. I saw a few addressed to him.
As far as what was shocking, well, there was more information released on an allegation that a woman in the National Guard may have been a victim of foul play. A former contractor with the National Guard wrote the Parnell administration saying that a woman who had allegedly been sexually assaulted had died while pregnant and that nobody knew why because there was no conclusive autopsy.
Jeremy said those e-mails had a special impact for him, now that the case may be reopened.
HSIEH: When Patricia Collins, the special investigator for the Walker administration said in her press conference after her report came out, ‘Hey, we should reinvestigate this dead body, this woman who died under suspect circumstances,’ — that’s a thing that jumped out at me.
It’s definitely one of the darker accusations having to do with the Guard in all of these records.
Going into the session, there were some calls for the Legislature to hold its own hearings on what happened with the National Guard. That didn’t really happen. Did any of these records touch on how much the Legislature knew about the Guard’s problems?
So, there was an anonymous letter that was sent to at least some lawmakers in 2012 that was redacted in the Parnell dump and released in the Walker dump. It was sent from a group that referred to itself as “Friends of the National Guard,” and it was pretty specific and hit on a lot of the things that would come out in the report done by the federal National Guard Bureau.
Sen. Pete Kelly’s name came up a few times in the documents, because at the time he was a special assistant for Parnell handling military affairs. It looked like the Fairbanks Republican had been looped in on some complaints having to do with favoritism. An e-mail from Anchorage Republican and Senate President Kevin Meyer’s chief of staff said that he had received complaints about criminal activity from the contractor I mentioned, but that he didn’t have plans to address it.
There was one exchange where Rep. Dan Saddler, an Eagle River Republican, complained that the governor should have done more to loop him in on the federal investigation. And then, there were a lot of e-mails having to do with senators like Eagle River Republican Fred Dyson, Anchorage Democrat Hollis French, and North Pole Republican John Coghill actually asking the administration for more information about how the Guard was being managed.
Do you think things would have shaken out any differently for the Parnell administration if all of these documents had come out earlier?
You know, it’s hard to do the counter-factual, but the team who worked on this did talk about it some. Here’s Jeremy and Jenny again.
CANFIELD: It was just strange to see like, so, what impact would that have had had we known it six months ago? Like, some of the things that were redacted just seemed inconsequential.
HSIEH: Yeah, like one of the things that really jumped out at me was Nizich especially — from the chunk I saw, Mike Nizich, the former chief of staff to Gov. Parnell, would have really short, terse, one-word, matter-of-fact e-mails, and they’d be completely redacted. It’s like what are we missing here, or what is privileged about saying yes or no or okay.
Parnell went into a close election having lost a records lawsuit and, frankly, looking like he was hiding something by first refusing to release the records and then redacting so much of the information. It also made him look like he was unwilling to be held accountable when it comes to really serious questions concerning the public’s safety. That is not a good place to be.
The documents weren’t exculpatory, but they also weren’t really any more damaging than the results of last year’s federal investigation. And reading through the records, there’s not really a clear narrative that presents itself except that the National Guard was not in good shape and there was a crazy power struggle going on within it. There was just so much conflicting information in these records.
It might be a little simplistic, but there’s that whole saying about how sunlight’s the best disinfectant. I don’t see how releasing this information could have put him in a worse position than he already was.
Does this release set a standard for the Walker administration in any way when it comes to transparency?
That was one of the things I wanted to find out when I started digging into it, because it’s way easier to release the other guy’s records, right? And based on the fact that the directives from both administrations’ attorneys general were the same and that Walker still exercised at least some privileges in about 60 percent of the documents he released, I don’t think we can say people asking for records should necessarily expect to see records totally free of black boxes when they make their ask.
Walker’s administration also exercised executive privilege with about 300 cases, and that’s really the privilege that is, at its heart, the administration’s prerogative to use. They could waive it in every case if they wanted, but if they believe it would damage the office’s ability to function or affect state security, they can offer a justification that it shouldn’t be released.
Really, the real standard Walker set for himself when it comes to transparency was well before the release, on the campaign trail. He was critical of Parnell for broadly denying the requests when they were initially made, and said he wouldn’t let things get to the point of a court battle over records.So, if people make similar records requests of his administration, that’s what he should be held to.