Gov. Sean Parnell this week accused campaign opponent Craig Fleener of lying about him in a newspaper editorial -- and demanded that Fleener correct the record -- but the candidate for lieutenant governor said he won't back down until he sees proof that he's wrong.
The disagreement escalated Thursday when Parnell's state office and the office running his re-election campaign fired off a pair of angry media statements responding to Fleener's op-ed piece that ran in the Anchorage Daily News the day before.
"Why Craig went to such great lengths to make up a tall tale is troubling," Parnell said in the statement from his state office. "To deliberately spread falsehoods to disparage someone in this way is certainly beneath him. He is better than that, and Alaskans deserve a correction."
Fleener, a former deputy commissioner with Fish and Game, had written that Parnell skipped out on a speaking engagement before the National Congress of American Indians conference that ran from June 8 to June 14 in Anchorage.
NCAI had invited the governor to give the welcome address. At the conference, Parnell the candidate was also bashed by his challengers -- including independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker, who is teamed up with Fleener -- for not attending the governor's debate.
"His excuse? Caught in traffic," Fleener wrote of the governor's absence at the NCAI opening. "Ten minutes later, phones and all other lines of communication to the governor were cut off, leaving conference organizers scrambling to fill his spot."
Parnell maintains he wasn't a "no-show," as the title of the editorial claimed, and that the statement about his being stuck in traffic was made up. Parnell had let organizers know well in advance that he would not attend the event because he would be out of town at the 60th wedding anniversary of his in-laws, said the state press release.
"Unfortunately, this is not the first time the Walker/Fleener campaign has fabricated information," said Jerry Gallagher, Parnell's campaign manager, in the other press release.
Gallagher was apparently referring to a statement made by the Walker campaign in February that Parnell was wrongfully taking advantage of state resources to campaign at a fundraiser in Washington, D.C. After learning the event wasn't a fundraiser, Walker quickly retracted the statement and said he personally apologized to the governor.
Gallagher said: "Sadly, outright lies, misinformation and trying to trick voters have become standard operating procedure by the Walker/Fleener campaign. Alaskans have to ask if a candidate is willing to spend his valuable time dreaming up stories, can we expect anything different if they ever get into office?"
Fleener, reached in Birmingham, Ala., where he was attending a leadership school, said organizers at the NCAI event had clearly expected the governor to give the opening address. In fact, they called for Parnell over the microphone as though he were going to speak, Fleener said.
"Why would the organizers say the governor is up next? So the best-case scenario is maybe the governor sent something to someone and maybe it didn't get routed," Fleener said. "If so, I'm not a liar and he's not a liar."
Fleener said the part about being stuck in traffic may have been wrong. He heard that from a conference organizer who he said had tried to contact Parnell's office after the governor had not shown up to speak, Fleener said.
But Fleener, an Alaska Native, said his most important point still stands: that the governor is not doing enough to resolve disputes between the state and tribes. Those include costly and divisive legal battles, like subsistence, criminal jurisdiction and voting rights. Hundreds of people had traveled to Alaska for the conference, and the governor could have sent a state official to give the address, such as Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, or provided a pre-recorded address, something to show that he wants to work with tribes, Fleener said.
"My intent is to say the governor should attend these events and say let's talk about problems between us. And don't just come and leave, but sit down for 45 minutes so we can forge a path forward."
Earlier on Friday, Fleener said he'd called into the Bernadette and Berkowitz talk show on KFQD. He said host Bernadette Wilson had called him a liar. Fleener responded that he was sharing the facts as he knew them, but that he'd apologize to the governor if he saw evidence that Parnell had rejected the invitation.
Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Parnell, sent an email on Friday to the media showing that Parnell's executive scheduler, Janice Mason, had declined NCAI's invitation by email on May 19, more than two weeks before the start of the conference.
"The Governor sends his regrets as already committed to celebrating a family members' 60th wedding anniversary outside of Anchorage on the requested dates," read the email to NCAI's office manager.
It was in response to the March 24 invitation from NCAI president Brian Cladoosby.
The Dispatch forwarded the email to Fleener on Friday afternoon, asking if he had any further response. He replied that he had contacted Leighow to gather more information.
By ALEX DeMARBAN