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Ex-mayor says Miller disciplined over ethics

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service,Richard Mauer

Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller used borough computers in Fairbanks for partisan political purposes in 2008 when he organized the failed effort to oust state GOP chairman Randy Ruedrich from his post, the borough mayor who supervised Miller said Wednesday.

Jim Whitaker, the mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough when Miller was the borough's part-time attorney, said Miller was disciplined in writing for violating the borough's ethics policy.

Whitaker said he decided to speak out publicly now after Miller vowed this week to not answer questions about his past. Miller told reporters he has been the victim of "lies and innuendos" after questions were raised about his work history with the borough.

"Statements that Mr. Miller made on Monday led me to believe he was not going to be forthcoming. And I felt that the statements he made were less than honest," Whitaker said in an interview Wednesday. "This entire event happened on my watch. I know what the truth is and I felt obligated to tell the truth."

Whitaker, who was borough mayor from 2003 to 2009, has long expressed reluctance to speak about the matter, but gave interviews Wednesday to the Daily News and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Miller's campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto did not return a message seeking comment.

Miller spent seven years as part-time borough attorney before leaving in September of last year, a day before he was to be fired, though not for the issue involving Ruedrich, Whitaker said.

Whitaker, a former Republican state legislator, said Miller got in trouble in March 2008 for misusing borough computers. Miller was the Interior regional chairman of the Republican Party at the time and, along with then-Gov. Sarah Palin, was trying have Randy Ruedrich replaced as party chair at the annual GOP convention. Then-mayor Whitaker said he was informed by his chief of staff, the borough attorney and the personnel director about what Miller had done.

Whitaker said Miller was caught using multiple computers to try to oust Ruedrich as party chairman. He said he was under the impression that Miller was trying to get himself elected to the position. Whitaker said he wasn't sure why Miller was using different computers.

Whitaker said the borough employees whose computers Miller used didn't know he was doing so. He said one of them "informed the acting borough attorney that something was amiss with her computer." He said borough technicians investigated and found that the computers had been used to send information to the Republican Party.

The borough's ethics policy does not allow employees to engage in politics on government time and with government equipment. Whitaker said his understanding is that Miller was reprimanded by the borough attorney and was to be suspended without pay. "I do not know if the time off without pay was enforced," Whitaker said.

Miller acknowledged, in writing, improperly using the computers, Whitaker said. Whitaker said he's never seen Miller's personnel file but believes the admission is in it.

This summer, the borough released a heavily blacked-out set of documents in response to a public records request from the Daily News and other news organizations seeking information related to any disciplinary action Miller faced while employed there. Many documents were withheld, including several from around the time of the 2008 Republican convention.

The withheld denied files included "web activity" reports of four employees from the day before the Republican convention, as well as statements that had been taken from four employees.

The borough asked Miller to sign a release allowing it to make public his records in advance of pending lawsuits from news organizations. Miller's attorney, Thomas Van Flein, responded to the borough on Monday that he wouldn't do so and that it would be against the law for the borough to release the records. "We have information that someone from within the Borough has been leaking information from the file. We will be subpoenaing witnesses to investigate this," Van Flein wrote in his response).

Van Flein did not provide evidence that the personnel file had been breached.

Palin herself helped expose Ruedrich's use of his state office for partisan political activity in 2003 when he was on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Ruedrich was fined $12,000 for ethics violations. Ruedrich, who easily survived Miller's coup attempt and is still the state Republican Party chairman, is backing Miller as the party's nominee for Senate.

Whitaker said Miller wasn't fired after being caught misusing borough equipment in 2008 because he was part of a team of attorneys dealing with a dispute over property taxes on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. "He was part of a team and we were in the middle of a case," Whitaker said.

Miller ended up leaving the job in September 2009. In his letter of resignation, he, cited disputes with the borough attorney over a case and getting time off. "It was my understanding in a conversation (with the borough attorney) that she was going to terminate him," Whitaker said. "She called me and informed me the next morning that the situation had resolved itself and Joe Miller had resigned."

Whitaker said he didn't know why Miller was about to be fired at that point. He said the borough attorney had the discretion to let him go.

Whitaker represented Fairbanks in the state House of Representatives from 1999 until he became mayor in 2003. He made headlines in August 2008 when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention as a Republican who favored Barack Obama for president. The endorsement came before Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Palin as his running mate.

Whitaker has a long and mixed history with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is running a write-in campaign after Miller beat her in the Republican primary this summer. They served in the state Legislature together but Whitaker publicly complained of nepotism when Murkowski was appointed to the U.S. Senate by her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Whitaker, though, donated $1,000 to Murkowski's 2004 campaign. He hasn't donated to Murkowski or any of the other Senate candidates in this election cycle.

Whitaker said Wednesday he hasn't spoken to Murkowski or to anyone from her campaign about Miller's issues as the borough. "As you know, I have been very hesitant to get involved in a political melee," Whitaker said.

Republican Party Chairman Ruedrich said in an interview on Wednesday that he couldn't imagine any reason for Miller to use multiple borough computers.

Ruedrich questioned Whitaker's motives in speaking out, saying Whitaker was an ally of Murkowski when she was in the Legislature, and noting his support of Obama's candidacy.

In his attempt to oust Ruedrich, Miller told reporters at the time that the party's vice chair, Cathy Giessel, should take over. Giessel, now the Republican candidate for a Senate seat from the Anchorage Hillside, wouldn't comment.

"I remember nothing about it," she said. "That's what I'm going to tell you about it -- nothing."

Ralph Seekins, a former Republican state senator from Fairbanks who chaired the 2008 state party convention during the no-confidence vote over Ruedrich, said he knew Miller to be technically savvy around computers and had a good network in his own personal office outside the borough.

"I don't know why he would use a borough computer to do anything like that when he had his own," Seekins said. "There would be no advantage for him to use one particular computer over an other to try to contact anyone."

State Rep. Jay Ramras, also a Fairbanks Republican, said he couldn't think of a reason either, though he thought Miller and his supporters were acting strangely at the time and found the calls he received from one Miller associate, Seth Church, to be particularly spiteful.

The effort to oust Ruedrich "had taken on this zealous, Salem witch- burning air," said Ramras, who himself lost a bid for lieutenant governor in the August primary.

It climaxed when Miller "showed up at the convention with a security team, all these people wearing radios," Ramras said. "There was a shrillness to it and a paranoia that was so extraordinary."

Church, now an official in the Miller campaign, said he couldn't talk about the convention.

Contact the reporters: scockerham@adn.com, rmauer@adn.com


By SEAN COCKERHAM and RICHARD MAUER
Anchorage Daily News