A legislative aide used his connections to try to affect a state law in a way that could benefit his son, who state prosecutors said sexually abused a 12-year-old girl when he was 18. News reporters Kyle Hopkins and Austin Baird of KTUU reported on the lobbying.
Baird spoke with me about what they found. Baird said it took months of interviews to get people to talk about it on the record. This transcript is edited for length and clarity.
BAIRD: This is involving a longtime legislative staffer, Tim Grussendorf, who’s worked with the legislature since 1990. Currently he’s an employee of Sen. Lyman Hoffman and the Senate Finance Committee. And exactly what he was working on was an effort to amend sex-crime laws. His son Ty Grussendorf is accused of sexual abuse of a minor and he was working on amendments that could have directly benefited his son’s case.
KITCHENMAN: How did lawmakers react to Tim Grussendorf approaching them?
BAIRD: There were very mixed reactions. A couple lawmakers who now say they did not get a full scope of the details of this case – some were working with him on a version of an amendment that could have potentially had a very direct impact on that case. And that would be Rep. Cathy Muñoz from Juneau, a Republican, and a Democrat from Sitka, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. How far along those talks got? No easy way to tell. But there was an amendment to look into this issue further, and that did end up in Senate Bill 91, the sweeping crime-reform bill that we heard a lot about all year long. And all that that does is ask the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission to look more closely at the sentencing standards for sex crimes.
KITCHENMAN: How did Ty Grussendorf’s lawyer describe what happened?
BAIRD: So, Ty Grussendorf was 18 years old in 2013 when he had a series of sexual encounters with a girl that was 12 years old at the time. Charges were filed in 2015. Ty Grussendorf’s lawyer, Julie Willoughby, in a court filing described the sex encounters as quote “mutually satisfying sexual adventures,” and argued that this girl who was in the sixth grade at the time had solicited Ty’s attention.
KITCHENMAN: So what were the grand jury charges?
BAIRD: The grand jury charged several counts of sexual abuse of a minor, and those are felonies that carry potentially decades in prison – and do have a hard mandatory minimum sentence attached to them if Ty Grussendorf is convicted. And those grand jury charges actually were tossed out by Judge (Philip) Pallenberg, who’s in Juneau and was considering that case (based on the grand jury hearing inadmissible hearsay evidence). But John Skidmore, the Criminal Division director of the Department of Law, he does say that the department is still actively pursuing this case, and it’s not an incident where it’s perhaps double jeopardy, because it never reached the point of a trial or anything like that. So the Department of Law is able to continue pursuing charges in this case.
KITCHENMAN: What do advocates for rape victims say about this?
BAIRD: One victim advocate that I would point to — Sen. Anna MacKinnon – is an Eagle River Republican and a former director of the nonprofit Standing Together Against Rape. She says she was aware of Grussendorf’s campaign to change the law. And her quote on this was: “I don’t want to disparage somebody trying to advocate for their son, which is fine, but it has to be in the seat.” She’s referring there to the place where people testify before legislative committees, on public record. She says: “Step up, do it in the hot seat, not behind closed doors.”
KITCHENMAN: Did you look at whether Tim Grussendorf crossed ethical lines, and if so, what did you find?
BAIRD: Certainly Tim Grussendorf says that he did not cross any ethical lines. And as far as whether or not he did – I’m not an attorney and it’s very tough to say. The organization that would look into that is the Alaska Select Committee on Legislative Ethics, and the problem with us trying to figure out if a complaint has been filed or anything like that – those are all kept private, so we really can’t say. And they couldn’t tell us if there has been a complaint all the way up until they find wrongdoing. So, there’s probably still a while before we would know even if there was a complaint filed, and this was an ethical violation under legislative rules and also Alaska statutes. So we don’t know yet for sure. And, really, we won’t know unless there does end up being a formal ruling from the ethics committee.