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Joe Miller: Failed Senate candidate settles lawsuit with North Star Borough

Amanda CoyneThe New York Times

Failed Alaska U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller declared victory in his long legal battle with the Fairbanks North Star Borough on Tuesday, the day that he was supposed to provide information to the court about how he was paying for his lawsuit.

On Monday, Miller accepted a $5,000 judgement against the borough and former Fairbanks Mayor Jim Whitaker. The judgement was offered by the borough. 

The borough mayor, Luke Hopkins, said it offered the judgement because it was in the "taxpayer’s best interests to put a stop to this litigation and legal expenses with this low monetary offer." 

Hopkins was also surprised that Miller accepted, given that he initially said that he would do so for $50,000, and then $25,000. He originally claimed that he had over $160,000 in damages. 

In a press release, Miller acknowledged that the judgment is “minimal.” However, he said that this was “never a case about money. Rather, this case was about getting at the truth and setting the record straight. There is now a permanent record doing just that.”

In a press release, however, the borough took issue with that statement. "This case confirmed that Miller engaged in misconduct at his work, lied about his misconduct, and was disciplined." 

The borough said that the judgement should not be "construed as an admission of fault in any respect." 

The dispute sprang from Miller’s years as a part-time lawyer for borough, evolved into a lawsuit involving journalists, including the Alaska Dispatch, and begat a debate over the First Amendment rights of bloggers.

It started in 2010, when Miller ran against U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the GOP primary. Miller’s work experience was conspicuously missing from his employment history, an omission that was quickly noticed by media. For a while, Miller fielded questions about it. But the more reporters demanded explanations, the more the candidate dug in and refused to talk openly.

The first to push the point was citizen blogger/reporter Andrew Halcro, who, during summer 2010, posted a two-line blog entry -- “Say it ain’t so Joe” -- which read: “U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller was fired from his job as an attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Why?”

The rumor floated in Halcro’s blog piqued the media’s interest, and it wasn’t long before Miller’s campaign was trying to dispel the firing myth.

Eventually, the press corps, led by Alaska Dispatch, sued the borough for the release of these public records and won. (The Dispatch was a party to the suit until earlier this month.) The records showed Miller, against borough policy, had sneaked on to the computers of colleagues working at the borough, used the access to pad a political poll he was involved in, then lied about it to try to cover up what he had done. (It was at this time, too, that Miller became convinced that Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich was plotting to kill him. According to his colleagues at the time, Miller talked about plots against his life, computer hijacking, a bug in his office, and even requested that the mayor hire a security detail to protect Miller.)

Miller was not fired, as Halcro’s blog claimed. He was, however, barred for three years from re-employment at the borough because he didn’t give enough notice prior to his departure.

After Miller lost in the general election to Murkowski’s write-in campaign, he sued the borough, claiming that someone in the office illegally leaked information about Miller’s time at the borough.

The judgement admits to none of this, however, and for all the time and money involved in the case, the only salient fact that seems to have emerged is that the former mayor of the borough, Jim Whitaker, had a meeting with Renee Broker, Miller’s supervisor, about Miller's time at the borough and what could be said to the press about that time.

When deposed about the meeting, Broker claimed attorney-client privilege, even though Whittaker was no longer the mayor. Whether or not Broker and Whittaker could claim such privilege was scheduled to be argued in front of a judge next week.

The borough contends the law is very specific that former mayors can seek advice about events that occurred while they were in office.

Miller still believes that someone at the borough leaked the information, his lawyer John Tiemessen said. “But every case has a point of diminishing returns,” he said. “Maybe you haven’t beaten under every bush and overturned every rock, but you’ve done enough that you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on,” he said.

Miller sought legal fees, but he refused to provide information about whether or not he or his leftover campaign coffers were footing the bill for those fees. He had said that until January 2011, his lawyers were paid a flat fee of $10,000 a month. Since then, however, he’s denied that his campaign has paid for the legal fees.

The judge ordered him to provide such information by Monday, but he accepted the judgement instead.

CORRECTION: This story was updated June 18, 2012. It has been corrected to describe the judgment as a judgment, not a settlement. 

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com