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Should FBI have kept a tighter leash on its Alaska militia mole?

Craig Medred
William Fulton, former owner of Drop Zone, made national headlines in October when he handcuffed a journalist after an event hosted by U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller.
Jill Burke photo
Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger talks to an APD officer after being detained by private security guards at a Joe Miller campaign event.
Jill Burke photo
Private security guards block access to Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger after a Joe Miller campaign event. Anchorage Daily News reporter Richard Mauer is at left.
Jill Burke photo
Anchorage Daily News reporter Richard Mauer, left, attempts to shoot video after private security guards detained Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger after a Joe Miller campaign event.
Jill Burke photo
Private security guards at a Joe Miller campaign event, including Bill Fulton (left) detain Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger.
Jill Burke photo
Joe Miller -- with his security guard William Fulton in the background -- on Election Night in November 2010.
Kim McEachen photo
William Fulton is an FBI informant for the Schaeffer Cox militia trial. He made headlines in Oct 2010 for handcuffing Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger. May 30, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
William Fulton is an FBI informant for the Schaeffer Cox militia trial. He made headlines in Oct 2010 for handcuffing Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger. May 30, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
William Fulton is an FBI informant for the Schaeffer Cox militia trial. He made headlines in Oct 2010 for handcuffing Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger. May 30, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
William Fulton is an FBI informant for the Schaeffer Cox militia trial. He made headlines in Oct 2010 for handcuffing Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger. May 30, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

The rogue security agent whose actions helped spark the downfall of 2010 U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller, a Fairbanks Republican, has finally revealed what he was thinking when he handcuffed an Alaska Dispatch reporter after a Miller rally in October 2010. What no one but William Fulton and a few federal official knew at the time was that Fulton was a paid informant working for the FBI, and apparently he had an agenda to undermine Miller's campaign.

The story Fulton tells is now raising new and troubling questions about the behavior of Alaska FBI agents, who were already being investigated in 2010 for their roles in railroading the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, from office. Stevens was convicted in 2008 of failing to report more than $250,000 in gifts and subsequently lost election to now Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. The guilty verdicts against Stevens were tossed the next spring, but his reputation remained sullied. He died in a plane crash in Southwest Alaska in August 2010 while fighting to clear his name.

As the Justice Department was investigating FBI actions in the Stevens case in the summer and fall of that year, the FBI had moved on to investigating Alaska militias. It hired Fulton, the owner of an Anchorage military surplus store called "Drop Zone'' and a sometime-security consultant, to infiltrate those organizations. Fulton has now told the Huffington Post that he thought putting the cuffs on Tony Hopfinger, the co-owner and editor of Dispatch, while working for Miller, a conservative Republican, appeared a great idea. Fulton said it bolstered his image with the militias.

Whether the claim is true, no one has any way of knowing for certain. What is clear, however, is that the cuffing by a paid FBI informant helped fuel Miller's downfall.

A virtual lock, but not foolproof

Before Fulton cuffed Hopfinger, many in the state thought Miller's victory over incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary had cleared his way to a seat in the Senate. After Fulton cuffed Hopfinger in the hallway of an Anchorage school after a public rally for Miller, a national firestorm of publicity -- most of it bad -- erupted, and Miller eventually lost the general election to Murkowski, who had staged an unprecedented write-in effort to claim victory.

Miller's campaign was not helped by his defense of Fulton, who Miller thought to be a friend, or by a series of public relations blunders that appeared to have been sparked in part by some sort of the media paranoia in Miller's mind.

Fulton, in one of two stories published by Huffington Post, said Miller was always paranoid.

'"As we're finding out that he's winning, I'm in the bathroom putting a bulletproof vest on the guy,'" he told the Post. "Describing Miller as 'paranoid,' Fulton said the underdog conservative was afraid he'd be targeted at election headquarters in Anchorage on that August night. 'It was fucking ridiculous.'"

"What Fulton leaves out is that he followed Miller around at convention central, warning him of threats against him and insisted that Miller put on Fulton’s personal vest,'' Miller has since posted on his website.

How much Fulton might have fed and encouraged Miller's paranoia is unclear. But it is certain that while Fulton was posing as Miller's friend, confidant and security, he was no friend.

Huffington Post reported that Fulton "says he was only feigning right-wing sympathies to boost his business and further embed himself in extremist circles. Handcuffing a journalist helped bolster that image.

"It completely solidified our position within the right wing, which was good, too," Fulton said of the incident. "Because there’s nothing the right wing likes more than you roughing up the left-wing media and such."

Miller, in what appeared to many a media blunder at the time (and clearly, with the benefit of today's hindsight, was a media blunder), defended Fulton after the handcuff incident. He continued to defend Fulton even a year later after the news first emerged that the man known to many as "Drop Zone Bill'' had been working for the FBI.

Who knew what and when?

"I want to make it explicitly clear that I do not believe that Bill Fulton acted with the intent to harm our campaign during the Anchorage town hall meeting this past October. In other words, I do not buy into any type of federal conspiracy against the Joe Miller for U.S. Senate Campaign," Miller told Alaska Dispatch in August 2011. Miller did not return a phone call asking for comment on Friday.

What federal officials thought of Miller's campaign is not known, but it is now clear Fulton had it out for the Fairbanks lawyer. According to Huffington Post, Fulton is bitter at the media for apparently not recognizing this: ""The left-wing completely attacked me, including Huffington Post, you bastards. I was working for you, you sons of bitches, and nobody knew it."

Why the FBI failed to give Miller a heads-up as to the fact he had someone associated with his campaign working to defeat him is unknown. An FBI spokesman on Friday refused to comment on that subject.

FBI agent Darren Jones was asked if the agency was aware Fulton was now saying he handcuffed Hopfinger to bolster his credibility within Alaska militias.

"Not before'' the cuffs went on, he said. "We had nothing to do with that. We were aware after the fact.''

Asked why the FBI didn't tell Miller of Fulton's agenda before the campaign defended the rogue security agent and started down a slippery slope toward a self-defeating war with the Alaska media, Jones said, "I'm not going to comment beyond what I said.''

Fulton, according to Huffington Post, did say his FBI handlers were at the time "displeased he handcuffed a journalist. 'Really?' the agent said when Fulton described the incident, according to Fulton. 'That was the response, 'Really?' Fulton said the editor arrest actually helped boost his cover. 'I mean, we got complete props from the right wing,' he said."

But while the right wing might have loved it, the incident only led the mainstream media to more aggressively pursue questions about Miller's past political activities in the state, which included trying to take over the Alaska Republican Party, and his behavior while employed as an attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the issue about which Hopfinger was trying to ask Miller when handcuffed. It would eventually turn out that Miller was reprimanded for some petty electioneering and attempts to cover it up: He used the computers of coworkers without their permission to try to make it look like they were voting in his online poll for who should run the state Republican party.

Clamming up and spouting off

Some political experts believed at the time, and some still believe to this day, that if Miller had come clean about that relatively minor incident immediately after winning the primary, he would be one of Alaska's senators. But instead he engaged a battle with the Alaska media to keep it secret.

He made his last stand in a paranoid, self-defeating appearance before the press at the Dena'ina Convention Center in downtown Anchorage. It was there he got in front of the press for the last time during the campaign to say: "I'm a man of flaws. We are like you. We are Alaskans. We have issues. We have drawn a line in the sand. You can ask me about background, you can ask me about personal issues, I'm not going to answer. I'm not."

After that early October confrontation, he ceased talking to the media -- with the exception of Anchorage radio talk-show host Dan Fagan -- and his campaign spiraled down toward a November defeat. The outcome was pretty much sealed after the details of the Fairbanks firing emerged per the orders of a state judge just before the election. Alaska Dispatch, frustrated by Miller's refusal to answer questions, had gone to court to make the borough open its personnel files and had later been joined in the case by other media outlets.

Miller, meanwhile, was continuing a tailspin into what appears to be a world of worry about left-wing conspiracies. He today runs a "news" website focused on the subject. It reported the Fulton story this way on Friday: "Federal Informant Admits Working for the Left During 2010 Handcuffing: 'I was working for you, you sons of bitches, and nobody knew it'”

The story accuses Fulton of conducting a "left wing jihad,'' and says that "as it turns out, Fulton was also masquerading as a conservative the whole time, not only while volunteering for Joe Miller, but while acting as the campaign manager for right-wing lieutenant governor candidate Eddie Burke as well."

There is no mention of the role of the FBI, a federal agency in position to expose Fulton's apparent desires and efforts to undermine an election. Many in the country -- be they on the right, left or center -- expect the FBI to be nonpartisan and believe it has an obligation to try hard to avoid influencing elections.

Some are taking notice of that now.

"The whole episode is troubling, especially coming on the heels of the Ted Stevens affair," noted Matt Johnson, a friend of Miller's involved in the campaign. "Without speculating over Stevens' innocence or guilt, it goes without saying that it is not a foregone conclusion that Begich would have won.... And remember, our legal objections notwithstanding, Joe would have only needed to take a little over 5,000 votes from Murkowski to win in 2010.

"Without respect to Lisa and Mark as individuals, the idea that the FBI and the Justice Department may have had a hand in picking our representation in the U.S. Senate is disturbing. There are a lot of questions raised by this latest episode."

Miller's campaign spokesman, Randy DeSoto, told Alaska Dispatch more than a year ago that he recognized the PR disaster inherent in Fulton handcuffing a reporter, but felt powerless to do anything at the time.

"Drop Zone followed their own protocol,'' he said in an email. "When I asked whether he (Hopfinger) needed to be held, they said once the arrest had been made, they had to detain Tony until the police came. I wish I felt I had the authority over the actions being taken, because I recognized immediately the negative PR implications."

It's doubtful, given that, he would have missed the implications of Fulton arresting Hopfinger to bolster his image with the Alaska militias from which Miller has tried to distance himself.

Hopfinger said he's glad to hear the FBI got upset when Fulton reported the handcuffing incident to his handlers, but he's with Miller in being troubled by what followed.

"Do we want the FBI dealing with cowboys like Bill Fulton who can change the outcome of political elections by, say, cuffing journalists?" he asked on his Facebook page. "No wonder Farmer Joe and his friends worry about Big Brother. I don't like the idea, either, of the FBI having a paid informant working inside a political campaign when the candidate himself is not the primary target of an investigation. Why would anybody run for office under those circumstances? Joe Miller should be more upset with the FBI/Justice Department than with Fulton."

CORRECTION: This story was corrected on Jan. 15, 2013 to reflect that Joe Miller was reprimanded -- not fired -- by the Fairbanks North Star Borough when it was first discovered he had used the computers of fellow employees to vote in an online poll without their knowledge. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com