In April, it was reported that Gov. Sean Parnell’s top staffer used his personal e-mail account to communicate with Alaska National Guard whistleblowers about sexual assault response. In an interview with APRN that month, the governor said Chief of Staff Mike Nizich’s correspondence on the National Guard should be a matter of public record.
PARNELL: I spoke with Mr. Nizich and understand that was at the request of the chaplains who wanted to go outside the official channels. However, I’ve asked Mr. Nizich to check his personal e-mail for that and his recollection is that it’s one email, but again that was four years ago, five years ago. I’ve asked him to check for that and move it to the state account, which is protocol to follow. And that will be a part of the public record at that point.
Shortly after that interview, APRN filed a records request to learn how the Office of the Governor handled complaints about the Guard. Four months later, that request has been denied. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez has more.
Alaska regulations give government bodies 10 working days to fulfill a records request, plus another 10 if they need an extension. It took Parnell’s office 86 full working days just to deny one.
The request asked for any e-mails Parnell Chief of Staff Mike Nizich sent to National Guardsmen using his personal account from 2010 on. It also sought interdepartmental correspondence between the governor’s office and the top two officials at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs: Adjutant General Thomas Katkus and Deputy Commissioner McHugh Pierre. The governor asked both of those men to resign this September, after a scathing federal report concluded the Alaska National Guard mishandled sexual assault reports and was plagued by a lack of trust in leadership.
APRN asked for these documents to find out how the Governor’s Office responded to complaints about the National Guard from its own members: Did they respond efficiently, and did they take complaints seriously?
Since the request was filed in May, APRN put in more than two dozen calls to the governor’s office to find out when the request would be satisfied, many of which went unreturned. The response finally came in as a three-page letter that arrived on Friday, September 26, at 6p.m.
The denial letter, sent by Policy Director Randy Ruaro, brings up three major reasons for rejecting the request. It cites the legal right to privacy, and it makes reference to a recent attack ad by Sen. Mark Begich’s campaign that upset the family members of sexual assault victims. It mentions not wanting to identify victims, even though two victims have already publicly come forward. It also suggests the documents fall under privileges protecting personnel and the communications of clergymen.
The letter notes that a “significant amount of information on the subject of alleged misconduct in the National Guard has already been made public.” To that end, the Governor’s Office also included a 56-page enclosure of news stories on the matter, including some done by APRN, instead of any actual documents.
Gov. Parnell was aware of the request, but not of its denial. After a Monday debate in Juneau, Parnell did not say if he believed records related to the National Guard should be made public, and instead repeatedly referred questions to his policy director before telling a reporter she was not “serious” in her questions.
PARNELL: I’ve known about the request, but I have not reviewed any records. I don’t know what he has done.
CANFIELD: Do you want to release the records?
PARNELL: We will comply with the statute to the best of our abilities and that’s why I suggest you go see and ask Randy Ruaro.
So, that’s what we did. First, Ruaro apologized for the slow response.
“That is a long period, I agree,” Ruaro said in a phone interview.
Ruaro said they were “swamped” with requests and lacked manpower to deal with them. He said there was no political calculation behind the delay, and that there was no effort to avoid potential litigation over the request being processed before Election Day.
As far as the denial itself, Ruaro said he took a “broad view” when he opted to reject the request wholesale instead of partially fulfilling it or releasing redacted documents.
“There’s no exceptions for partial releases of records when it’s coming to identities of victims, their circumstances, personnel records,” said Ruaro. “The statutes don’t just say in those instances that you can release part of a record but not all of it. As I read it, they’re more of a blanket prohibition.”
Parnell’s political rival disagrees with that legal interpretation. Bill Walker, an attorney who is running as an independent candidate for governor, questioned some of the reasons for the denial, specifically the argument that the correspondence with National Guard chaplains who raised concerns about leadership should be excluded.
“They’re trying to apply a privilege that doesn’t apply to them,” said Walker. “Those chaplains are not the clergy for Mike Nizich and Sean Parnell.”
Walker said if he were governor, his interpretation of the public records statute would make transparency a higher priority.
“Certainly the victims’ names would be redacted out, but not necessarily the process would be redacted out,” said Walker of the policy he believes should have been followed.
Walker also suggested the governor is stonewalling, and the point of the delay is “to keep the issue out of the public eye — to not expose the governor’s wrongdoing until after the election.”
The chaplains who notified the Governor’s Office of wrongdoing within the National Guard declined interview requests or did not respond to messages. But their attorney, Wayne Ross is disappointed Parnell is not providing more information about his office’s response to the allegations.
“I think you ought to hold his feet to the fire and get them,” said Ross. “Obviously he said if it would be released and it’s not being released, somebody’s not following his orders — or he’s not being truthful. I would like to believe that somebody is not following his orders.”
While the Governor’s Office did not provide any records, APRN was separately able to obtain three e-mails sent by a National Guard chaplain along with one response sent by Nizich from his personal account.
The e-mails were sent at the beginning of 2012, and the chaplain’s correspondence refers to the sexual assault crisis only broadly. The chaplain does not identify victims, but he does name specific Alaska National Guard leaders and proceeds to excoriate them. The chaplain mentions the “misuse of a government credit card to the tune of over $200,000” and the promotion of a senior officer who ignored the problem of sexual assault in his command. On a third message sent February 3, the chaplain expresses concern that he’s “cluttering up” Nizich’s inbox.
Nizich did not respond until more than two weeks after the chaplain’s third message. The e-mail, sent from Nizich’s personal e-mail account, reads “just so you know I am receiving your messages. I got a call … wanting to me [sic] to send an acknowledgement.”
KTOO’s Jennifer Canfield contributed reporting to this story.