Legislative aide resigns after anti-Islamic agenda crosses into public role

ldemer@adn.comDecember 14, 2012 

A legislative aide who joined an anti-Islam group and became obsessed with its mission crossed the line and illegally used state resources to promote its interests, a state ethics panel concluded in a ruling released Friday.

Minutes after the ruling was made public, Karen Sawyer's new boss, state Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, announced that Sawyer resigned her job.

Sawyer's activism on behalf of Stop Islamization of America became an issue when she was chief of staff to Palmer Rep. Carl Gatto before his death this year. Hughes was appointed to replace Gatto on May 1.

The House subcommittee of the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics recommended that Sawyer be fired and permanently banned from rehire by the Legislature.

The far-right, anti-Islam group describes its goals as support of human rights, religious liberty and freedom of speech, and opposition to Sharia, or Islamic, law. But the Southern Poverty Law Center calls it an anti-Muslim hate group, as does the Anti-Defamation League.

Sawyer allowed an operative for the anti-Islam group, a man named David Heckert, to set up shop inside the Wasilla Legislative Information Office, where he worked for months, according to one of two reports about the ethical lapses by the ethics panel that were released Friday. Sawyer let Heckert use her personal laptop and Internet card, and provided him a cellphone number under her family plan. She herself used state equipment to plan events for the group. She even gave Heckert her key to the Wasilla LIO so he could get in while she was out of town, the report said.

Part of her effort was loosely tied to state business. Gatto was the prime sponsor of House Bill 88, legislation aimed at barring "foreign laws" from being enforced in Alaska, which he said was an anti-Sharia measure. It got little traction in the Legislature and Hughes said in an interview Friday she doesn't see a need for such a law in Alaska.

In one report, the House subcommittee found that Sawyer's actions used public resources for the private benefit of Stop Islamization of America.

"The committee determined that Ms. Sawyer lost sight of the purpose of HB 88 and became personally and obsessively involved with SIOA and its mission," the report said. In an email in March 2011, she remarked, "My co-workers wonder if I'm getting obsessed with Sharia."

While the anti-Islam group supported House Bill 88, its main purpose was promoting itself, the report said.

Sawyer also failed to disclose her membership on the board of the anti-Islam group for 2011 and 2012, the second House subcommittee report said. Such disclosures are required even for volunteer positions to avoid conflicts of interest and to keep the public informed in cases of perceived conflicts.

Sawyer opened a checking account under the name of Stop Islamization of America and listed herself as secretary/treasurer, the second report said. In addition, she and Heckert were the only two people listed on the website for the Alaska branch of the group, the report said.

On Sawyer's personal Facebook page Dec. 10, she shared a disturbing photo of heavily armed children. "Sweet innocent Muslim children at play," she wrote.

Complaints against Sawyer were filed with the ethics committee on Feb. 23 of this year, though who brought the complaint is confidential, said Joyce Anderson, the committee's administrator.

All Mat-Su legislators have office space in the Wasilla LIO. Hughes said she wouldn't be surprised if someone noticed Heckert working there, though he could have come into Gatto's office directly from a side door and not through the shared entrance.

The first report addresses in some detail an Aug. 3, 2011, evening meeting held at the Wasilla LIO publicized as being about Gatto's anti-Sharia bill as well as the anti-Islam group. Sawyer was out of town because of a family emergency but Heckert had her key and used it to get into the locked legislative building, the report said.

At the meeting, Heckert asked for donations of money and airline miles for a Stop Islamization conference in October. Participants were offered cookies and cupcakes bearing a symbol that reflected the group's philosophy. Gatto's bill only came up twice during the two-hour meeting, the report said.

No one from Gatto's office was there either.

Less than two weeks later, on Aug. 15, 2011, the ethics committee staff advised Sawyer to separate her legislative work from her Stop Islamization work.

But she didn't, the report said.

"In addition, the committee was concerned about Ms. Sawyer's lack of candor and cooperation during the investigation and her unwillingness to acknowledge the ethical issues raised by her actions," the report said.

She also didn't regularly update Gatto, especially as related to Heckert's activities and the agendas for multiple meetings she set up.

Sawyer first began working as a legislative aide about 10 years ago. Hughes said Sawyer is beloved in the Mat-Su and was a loyal and productive employee.

Soon after Gov. Sean Parnell appointed Hughes to replace Gatto, Sawyer let her know that an ethics review was in progress. But the process was confidential.

Until the ethics committee staff called her Friday morning with the findings, Hughes said, she didn't know what it was all about. After she read the reports, she said it was clear that Sawyer had to step down or be terminated.

"From my perspective, she's been a loyal and efficient employee," Hughes said. "But there's just no room for this kind of activity when you are working on behalf of the public."

With just a month until the start of the next legislative session, Hughes said she'll move fast to replace Sawyer.

The House subcommittee that issued the reports has seven members: Reps. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, and Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, three private attorneys, the director of the Kenai campus of the state university, and a retired teacher.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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