Parnell to review hiring of Marine Highway security official

Alex DeMarban

Gov. Sean Parnell on Tuesday ordered a review of the state's hire of a former police officer who has faced allegations of sexual harassment and who forfeited his police certificate in 2012 before it could be revoked.

The former officer, Jason Joel, was hired in late May by the state to implement security plans for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The hiring came even though Joel, an officer for five years in the Southeast Alaska town of Haines, had been demoted from sergeant and been the subject of multiple complaints, and despite a recommendation by Haines' former police chief that Joel's certificate be revoked by a police oversight agency, according to a news account.

Joel, reached at the marine system's headquarters in Ketchikan, said he could not comment.

At his new mid-level position with the state, Joel oversees no one, said Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

But it's an important job because Joel must protect crews and passengers by creating and managing security plans for vessels and terminals on the state marine highway system.

Joel's past made the news last week when the public radio station in Haines, KHNS , reported that a former police dispatcher there had "documented several instances of harassment from Joel," and that several residents in that Southeast community said they've witnessed or experienced harassment by Joel.

None of the victims or witnesses provided their names for the radio report.

The allegations provided fodder for opponents of Parnell, who is already defending himself over reports of sexual misconduct in the Alaska National Guard. Parnell asked for an investigation into those complaints in February, four years after senior chaplains in the guard first raised the issue with him and months after two rape victims had publicly shared their story in the Anchorage Daily News .

Parnell has said he didn't receive the details needed to initiate an investigation until February, and he did so immediately once those specifics were available.

Byron Mallott, Parnell's Democratic opponent for governor, blasted Parnell last week on Facebook, demanding that he "cancel" Joel's hiring.

Mallott mocked Parnell for not living up to the goals of his five-year campaign to reduce the sexual assault epidemic in Alaska.

"Parnell again shows disrespect for Alaska women and Alaska values," Mallott said. "'Choose Respect' has to be more than a political slogan.

It must be matched by action. Parnell should reverse this hire immediately and direct his personnel division to review its hiring practices to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Even a casual review of the public record would have revealed Joel's past, Mallott said.

The Alaska Democratic Party also weighed in on its website, with executive director Kay Brown saying "under no condition should Governor Parnell be hiring men with a record of harassment."

Parnell didn't hire Joel, said Sharon Leighow, the governor's spokeswoman. On Tuesday, Leighow said personnel issues are agency matters. She initially directed questions to the Transportation Department commissioner, Pat Kemp.

Asked for further details and whether the governor was concerned about Joel's history of possible harassment, Leighow responded in a second email, saying, "The governor was just made aware of this situation and has expressed concern. He has directed Commissioner Kemp to look into this hiring process."

Woodrow said Kemp, who was on personal leave on Tuesday, had asked Transportation staff to begin reviewing the process that led to Joel's hiring. "The governor did ask the commissioner to look into the hiring process, but because it's still part of the hiring process, we can't disclose what (the review) will entail," Woodrow said.

Woodrow said he could not provide details about how Joel was hired or how extensively his background had been reviewed. He said only that Joel was selected by a committee of people and that he earns somewhere between $5,000 and $8,000 monthly.

"There's not much we can say because the hiring process is kept confidential," Woodrow said.

Woodrow said Joel's position does not require police certification.

The Alaska Police Standards Council in May 2012 initiated the process to revoke Joel's police certificate. Joel chose to surrender his certificate late that year.

By doing so, Joel avoided an administrative hearing that would have brought his case into a public forum, according to information provided by Kelly Alzaharna, executive director of the council.

Since that didn't happen, the details of Joel's case before the council remain confidential, said Alzaharna.

A Google search by the hiring committee would have turned up news stories from Haines about Joel's questionable demotion, his eventual departure from the Haines police department in 2011, and his case before the council.

The Chilkat Valley News, a Haines newspaper, reported that the police chief at the time, Gary Lowe, had agreed not to release information about complaints that led to Joel's decertification, in exchange for Joel's resignation. But Lowe said he had received "multiple" complaints about Joel from citizens and police employees, the paper reported. The deal with Joel helped give the victims closure and privacy and protected the department from lawsuits, said Lowe, who also recommended that Joel's police certificate be revoked.

After Haines, Joel worked as a police officer in the island village of St. Paul in the Bering Sea for a few months before becoming a police chief in the Interior village of Galena for a short spell.

Police officials reached in those villages could not immediately provide details about Joel's service there, other than when he worked.

As for the review of Joel's hiring, it's not certain when it will be completed or what it will lead to, said Woodrow. "What will come of that, who knows," he said.

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