A state judge issued a last-minute reprieve Wednesday for Brig. Gen. Catherine Jorgensen, one of three Alaska National Guard officers fired in October by then-Gov. Sean Parnell as the National Guard scandal threatened to overtake his reelection bid.
Jorgensen sued this week to retain her job, alleging Parnell fired her without cause in a desperate "political Hail Mary" to save his own skin. On the last day of the year, when the firing was to take effect, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi agreed to issue a temporary restraining barring the state from carrying out the dismissal. If she lost her state job, she'd also lose her federal status as a general and would be forced to retire, probably at the lower rank of colonel, her lawyer said.
Guidi, presiding over a hastily convened, hour-long hearing, said his order would remain in force until a broader hearing with testimony and other evidence could be held by the judge assigned to Jorgensen's case, Gregory Miller, possibly in mid-January. Guidi sat in for Miller, who was on leave. Both are Parnell appointees.
Guidi said a key issue for a judge to decide was whether a general in the guard is an "at will" employee who can be fired without cause by the governor, the guard's commander in chief.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Dosik told Guidi the civilian governor needs to have that kind of control over the top guard brass -- just like President Harry Truman needed the unfettered right to fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur to avoid a war with China.
Ray Brown, one of Jorgensen's attorneys, said only the top Guard officers -- the adjutant general and assistant adjutant generals -- were at-will employees. Jorgensen should have been afforded at least an administrative hearing in which she could hear specific accusations and provide a defense, Brown said.
Jorgensen has been forced to work from home since Parnell directed his acting adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Mike Bridges, to fire her, and Brown said she can continue to do so. Jorgensen was in the courtroom for the proceedings, but didn't testify and declined a request for an interview.
Jorgensen was the Army Guard chief of staff and former Land Component Commander. Until recently, she was the officer charged with ensuring the guard was ready to protect Alaska in a disaster and to mobilize for deployment anywhere in the world. In 2013, she became the first woman general in the Alaska Army Guard. (Retired Brig. Gen. Deborah McManus reached that rank in the Alaska Air Guard in 2007.)
Guidi said he decided to issue the temporary restraining order because McManus had much more to lose than the state, which wasn't even paying her salary -- it was coming out of the U.S. treasury. He acknowledged the new governor, Bill Walker, should have the latitude to form his own executive team, but if Jorgensen's court case can be resolved in January, there would be ample time for Walker, Guidi said.
Jorgensen was one of two National Guard officers fired Oct. 2, unfired a day later, then fired again Oct. 20 as the scandal grew in the waning days of Parnell's administration. The other was Col. Edith Grunwald, the director of human resources for the Alaska National Guard. Another general, Brig. Gen. Donald Wenke of the Air Guard, also lost his job Oct. 20 as commander of the 176th Wing.
Walker press secretary Grace Jang said Wenke will take an honorable retirement Thursday. Grunwald is still a member of the Alaska National Guard with a scheduled retirement in spring 2015, Jang said.
Jorgensen is fighting her removal and has no plans to retire before 2018. "BG Jorgensen was hastily and illegally removed from her job as a political casualty of Governor Parnell's public need to blame someone for problems in the Alaska National Guard," the lawsuit said.
Jorgensen, in her lawsuit, said she did nothing "that justified her politically motivated firing."
In fact, she said in her lawsuit, she had initiated some of the programs suggested by the National Guard Bureau in its September report that rocked the governor's office and confirmed allegations of sexual misconduct, reprisals and poor leadership that had circulated around the guard for years. Those issues shouldn't stick to Jorgensen, her lawsuit said. Her promotion to general "required confirmation of the United States Senate, which included both (Judge Advocate General) and Inspector General reviews of her career and the intense vetting and scrutiny of the senatorial process."
Jorgensen said she was fired after Parnell said in a letter to Bridges he had lost "all faith and confidence" in her as a result of the National Guard report.
"Governor Parnell did not specify BG Jorgensen's failures, nor did he or anyone allow BG Jorgensen any opportunity to respond or rebut these unspecified allegations," the lawsuit said. In fact, the lawsuit said, the failures in leadership detailed in the guard report "occurred years" before she was appointed to a leadership role, yet her firing would lead the public to conclude she was to blame.
In asking for an immediate restraining order, the lawsuit said, "The loss of BG Jorgensen's ability to salvage her military career through the procedural due process avenue is forever closed after December 31. A military career is irreplaceable. Even if BG Jorgensen prevails at trial and is awarded money damages for her lost compensation, no jury or court can give her back the opportunity she has to save her military career and reputation through the constitutional procedural safeguards she is being denied."