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General resigns as Parnell assails 'culture of mistrust' in Alaska National Guard

Jill Burke
Gov. Sean Parnell released the findings of the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations regarding allegations of misconduct in Alaska National Guard during a press conference in Anchorage on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. During the press conference, Parnell reported that he had requested and received the resignation of Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus. Bill Roth / ADN

A federal investigation requested by Gov. Sean Parnell has found significant problems within the ranks of the Alaska National Guard, years after allegations of mishandling of rapes, sexual misconduct and other offenses had begun to surface.

The assessment, conducted by the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations and released Thursday by Parnell's office, found “several instances of fraud,” “actual and perceived favoritism, ethical misconduct …” and that the Alaska National Guard “is not properly administering justice.”

Also on Thursday, Parnell sought and received the resignation of Alaska National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, adjutant general and commissioner of Alaska’s Division of Military and Veteran Affairs.

“This culture of mistrust and failed leadership in the Guard ends now,” Parnell said.

Of particular concern leading up to the investigation was whether sexual assault cases were being properly handled. The OCI’s 229-page report stemming from its nearly six-month-long investigation found that while the Guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program is “well organized,” “victims do not trust the system due to an overall lack of confidence in the command.”

“I am extremely frustrated and I am angry that it has taken this long to get to the bottom of these issues. In hindsight it clearly should not have taken this long and I offer my deepest apologies,” Parnell said during a late-afternoon press conference at his Anchorage office. “There are a whole range of people who have been hurt and who deserve this to be made right.”

Parnell declined to say whether he felt Katkus was personally involved in any of the enumerated misconduct and failings. People can draw their own conclusions from the report, he said, adding that as the Guard’s leader, Katkus had ultimate responsibility for what transpired under his watch.

However, the report notes Katkus’ unusual position relative to the Alaska National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention commander. OCI’s investigators found a high level of misconduct within that division, including “misuse of government vehicles, fraud, adultery, inappropriate relationships and sexual assault.”

Additionally, Recruiting and Retention had been previously investigated for weapons smuggling, rape and drug trafficking. Lack of evidence and lack of jurisdiction resulted in the cases going nowhere.

During those investigations, the Recruiting and Retention commander reported directly to Katkus, an arrangement described as “deviation from the normal reporting chain.”

This unique reporting structure, combined with reports that the Recruiting and Retention commander was Katkus’ friend and neighbor, created “a perception that this commander was invulnerable.”

Citing an Army regulation that requires senior officials to be investigated by the Army inspector general, the OCI stated it did not investigate the validity of the allegations concerning Katkus and the commander. But the report does state the OCI forwarded allegations of misconduct among senior leaders to the inspector general with oversight of those individuals.

In a separate line of inquiry, the report found that senior leaders were often aware of allegations about “inappropriate relationships and fraternizations,” but because the adjutant general -- Katkus -- believed that the Alaska National Guard was “not the morality police,” allegations were not addressed until the alleged conduct became more severe.

Katkus had led the Guard for five years, a post he assumed after serving in the Guard for more that 30 years and two decades as an Anchorage police officer.

Alaska Army Guard Brig. Gen. Mike Bridges will serve as acting commissioner until Katkus’ replacement is named. Additional staff changes are expected as Parnell further reviews the command structure.

Parnell called for a special investigation by OCI in February, saying he’d grown “deeply concerned” about reports of sexual assaults and other behavior within the Guard. He asked that investigators include fraud cases in their review and that the Guard’s command structure also undergo scrutiny.

Parnell said Thursday that while other investigations had been conducted over the years, including by the National Guard Bureau and the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Defense, those reviews had failed to illustrate the depth and scope of the problem or establish the patterns of behavior found in this most recent investigation. Characterizing this newest investigation as “extensive,” Parnell said it included a review of both the Army and Air National Guards, thousands of records and more than 185 interviews.

Formed in 2012, the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations was created to handle complex administrative matters and sexual assaults, crimes that military criminal investigators and organizations had rarely looked into due to a lack of jurisdiction. Oversight of criminal matters involving Guard members falls to the state. The NGB assembled the OCI with specially trained, hand-picked sexual assault investigators to try to fill the gap.

In requesting the team of Outside investigators, Parnell noted that he was concerned about a “hostile environment and culture” within sections of the Guard, and of harm not only to the wellbeing of victims but also to the Guard as a whole, whose morale and mission were at stake.

Laundry list of findings

The final assessment from the Office of Complex Investigations focused on a range of topics: sexual assault, hostile work environment, fraud, coordination with law enforcement, misconduct and command climate.

Since 2006, the Alaska National Guard has received 37 reports of sexual assault, some of which were investigated by the Guard but most of which were referred to local law enforcement.

The report found that from 2007 to 2011, the Alaska National Guard did not manage sexual assault cases well. Records were not properly maintained or tracked, victims and leaders often were not given case updates, victims were not offered treatment services, and victim information was not kept as confidential as it should have been.

In 2011, a position was created for a trained and qualified sexual assault prevention and response coordinator. According to the OCI report, many of the deficiencies identified in the prior years have been corrected. The program is effective, the coordinator is organized, cases are tracked and victims seem generally satisfied with the support they have received.

Still, perceptions remain, according to the report, that victim information won’t remain confidential, that cases won’t be managed well and that victims may be perceived as weak if they come forward. Such perceptions, the report found, are ongoing barriers to sexual assault reporting.

Investigators also found instances of sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual conduct, including drawings of male genitalia inside aircraft panels, flight instructors having sex with students, and senior leaders sending harassing and inappropriate text messages. Although witnesses reported the conduct, no action occurred as a result.

The OCI found that the Alaska Air National Guard was suffering from “hostile climate issues,” stemming from a “general pattern of inappropriate behavior that was not being addressed by the leadership.” Examples included the “public display of nude pictures, sexual innuendo and inappropriate touching” within the workplace.

Spanish-speaking Guard members, many from Puerto Rico and serving in Alaska at Fort Greely, told investigators they’d experienced other difficulties. Leaders had told them they weren’t allowed to speak Spanish in the “operational” area, a violation of Army policy if the communication is personal and unrelated to military functions.

Inappropriate use of government travel and purchase cards was uncovered, as was one incident of embezzlement and a separate incident involving the misuse of equipment, including a helicopter, and personnel for personal gain. More oversight is needed, investigators found, to detect and prevent fraud.

The investigative team also found that while there were many kinds of misconduct (failed urinalysis, alcohol violations, sexual assault, assault, fraud, etc.), there “was a lack of consistency in the tracking of various cases ...” and “a lack of consistent punishment for like offenses.”

Finally, recent surveys of the command climate indicated that Guard members think there continue to be barriers to reporting sexual assaults. These include concerns about social retaliation, lack of confidence in leadership and justice, lack of privacy and trust.

In the last 12 months alone, the surveys, conducted early this summer, uncovered 200 incidents of perceived discrimination or sexual harassment. Fear of retaliation prevented many respondents from filing complaints.

“Overall, the survey reveals a perception of lack of leadership integrity within all levels of command,” investigators wrote in their final report.

It also suggests a culture tolerant of ethical misconduct and a willingness to look the other way or measure out lighter punishment when the wrongdoers were commanders or senior enlisted members: for example, allowing reprimanded senior personnel to retire at their current grade or continue service and relocate to another division.

Cleaning up

Changing the culture within the Alaska National Guard, and creating systems that are responsive to complaints and protect witness privacy, will require ongoing work.

The Office of Complex Investigations made numerous suggestions. To implement the recommendations, Parnell said, he will create an independent “Special Project Team,” which he has asked the National Guard Bureau to help staff.

Suggested fixes include shifting the culture around sexual assault from one of acceptance to one of accountability; providing adequate resources and personnel to staff equal employment and judge advocate positions; improving training; tracking by the Guard of all police investigations concerning allegations of misconduct and taking appropriate administrative actions; reviewing how money is managed and ongoing anti-fraud reviews; addressing claims of ethical and moral misconduct; increasing transparency to reinforce that justice is being pursued; protecting victims of discrimination and sexual assault from being re-victimized.

“Between me and my office’s multiple follow-ups with Guard leadership on these matters between 2010 and 2014, and our congressional delegation’s independent reviews by different agencies, I am extremely frustrated that it took so long to get to the root of these issues. Our Alaska Guard members deserve better; and those who have brought complaints forward deserve better,” Parnell said Thursday.

“My goal now is to continue Alaska’s wholehearted support for our National Guard members in those things they do so well, and to transform it in areas identified by the Guard Bureau’s findings as needing change.”