A recently ousted military affairs official has been hired by the Alaska Senate Majority to guide their media strategy. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
McHugh Pierre was asked in September to step down as deputy commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, as part of then-Gov. Sean Parnell’s attempts to reform the Alaska National Guard. His resignation came shortly after the release of a federal report that concluded the Guard suffered from leadership failures and a toxic command climate. The next month, Pierre established a public relations firm, Quantum Communications. Pierre has now been brought on to help the Senate’s Republican majority caucus in their communications with the press.
Senate President Kevin Meyer made the hire, and he considers it essential.
“It’s only 90 days, but we need all the help we can to get our message out to the general public and to our constituents,” said Meyer in a phone interview.
Last month, Meyer joined other legislative leaders in calling upon Gov. Bill Walker to enact a staffing freeze in response to a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall. Because his caucus’ press office had a vacancy, Meyer does not see that order conflicting with Pierre’s hire. He added Pierre will not be on payroll as a state worker, but instead will be awarded a four-month contract paid out of the Senate Majority’s funds. The contract has not yet been signed, but Meyer said it will not exceed $35,000. Anything over that amount requires a vote of the 14-member Legislative Council.
“My expectation would be it would be closer to $30,000,” said Meyer.
Meyer said he interviewed other candidates for the position before reaching out to Pierre. He added that he asked his colleagues if they took issue with the hire. Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican who will co-chair the finance committee, noted that Pierre was married to her chief of staff, but did not find that to be a problem. Meyer said MacKinnon’s office was not involved with the hire, nor was his own spouse, who is a special assistant in military affairs commissioner’s office.
“Absolutely not,” said Meyer. “My wife is so not political that she didn’t even know about it until I mentioned it to her last night.”
Though Pierre started off as a television reporter, he’s spent the bulk of his career in state government. He managed public affairs for former Gov. Frank Murkowski, and did similar work for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. He also served as a spokesperson for the Alaska Republican Party.
When Pierre stepped down from his deputy commissioner post in September, his letter listed his accomplishments and said he was ready for “new adventures in the private sector.” But it didn’t make any reference to problems in the Alaska National Guard, which reached a crisis level during the Parnell administration.
Parnell did not provide a reason for Pierre’s dismissal, except to say it was connected to his National Guard reform effort. Records released in response to a lawsuit by Alaska Public Media and the Alaska Dispatch News contain a June e-mail from Parnell to his top aides, ordering that Pierre “have absolutely nothing to do with cases where Guard members are under investigation or subject to review – especially as they relate to two people he is personally connected to” after Pierre reportedly involved himself in a former classmate’s disciplinary matter. Separately, chaplains, who had confronted the governor and legislators about the mishandling of sexual assault in the Alaska National Guard, have complained that Pierre directed them to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Sen. Kevin Meyer said he considered Pierre’s resignation when deciding to award him the contract, but that he could not find concrete information that Pierre acted inappropriately.
“I’ve asked around to try to figure out what he’s been accused of or what he’s guilty of, and nobody knows,” said Meyer. “So I don’t how much of that was political hype, and how much of that is reality. But certainly if we find out that if he was involved in any way that’s illegal, then yeah, we would terminate his contract immediately.”
In a phone interview, Pierre said his removal was part of a larger program to change Guard leadership.
“I was asked to resign because the governor was ready to have someone new in that position. You serve at the governor’s pleasure, and it was clear that he didn’t want the senior leadership to stay,” said Pierre. “I never did anything wrong. I don’t believe the organization did any wrong. I think the organization did everything it could to support its members.”
Pierre will work directly out of Meyer’s office. The other members of the press shop will handle day-to-day operations, while Pierre will focus on the broader communications strategy.
“We’ll be coordinating the message plan,” said Pierre. “The voters sent the right people to Juneau, and I want to make sure they’re effective in communicating to the voters what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to do it.”
Going into the legislative session, a number of lawmakers say reforming the Alaska National Guard is a priority. The federal report by the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations found that Alaska guardsmen were reluctant to report cases of sexual assault because of a lack of trust in the system, and that the Alaska force has problems with favoritism and fraud. Senate Judiciary Chair Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, has expressed interest in holding National Guard hearings, and Gov. Bill Walker is currently screening candidates for a special investigator position.
Pierre said he will not handle communications strategy related to the Alaska National Guard.