BETHEL -- The decision by Gov. Bill Walker to force Bethel's top prosecutor from her job appears to be the first time a governor has taken such action against a district attorney, but Walker is defending the move.
June Stein, a prosecutor for more than 25 years and Bethel district attorney since 2011, was fired Sunday, upsetting the established order in the Western Alaska hub and leading some to worry over who next will fill one of the most challenging jobs in state government. Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny flew to Bethel to deliver the message along with a letter that said, "this action is being taken at the direction of the governor."
"I had received some concern from the area about how she was working out in that area," Walker said Tuesday in a brief telephone interview. "It just appeared that she wasn't -- that it was not a good fit."
He said he had heard from a "number of people" with concerns but wouldn't name them or describe the issues. But when pressed, he confirmed that one of the critics was Bethel lawyer Jim Valcarce.
"I've heard from him on that issue, but he was not alone," Walker said.
The governor said Stein was offered a transfer to Anchorage, but Stein said that was not correct.
"I was not offered another job," she said Tuesday. "I specifically said to Svobodny, 'Am I being fired or transferred?' He said 'fired.' "
He told her if she wanted him to fight for a job for her, "he might see what he could do," she said.
Efforts to reach Svobodny and Attorney General Craig Richards -- Walker's former law partner -- were unsuccessful Tuesday.
On the topic of Stein, all inquiries from the media were being handled by the governor's office, Cori Mills -- an assistant attorney general and law department spokeswoman -- said in an email.
Former Attorney General John Havelock, who served under then-Gov. Bill Egan in the early 1970s, said Tuesday that while the governor has the authority to take such a step, doing so opens him to accusations of political interference.
"You want to keep criminal prosecutions separate from politics," Havelock said. "When I was AG, the governor never intervened, and my observation is that no other governor has ever proposed to intervene in the management of the criminal justice system."
Steve Haycox, a University of Alaska Anchorage professor emeritus of history, said he compiled a history of Alaska's attorneys general and the Department of Law a few years back and didn't uncover any instances of "a governor stepping in and doing that."
In 1990, then-Gov. Wally Hickel presented Attorney General Charlie Cole with a list of law department employees that his adviser and former attorney general, Edgar Paul Boyko, wanted fired, Haycox said. "Charlie refused to do it." But Cole eventually resigned from the post in part because he thought his independence was being challenged, Haycox said.
One strength of Alaska's legal system is that the attorney general's job is not an elected political position, the semi-retired professor said.
Walker's move was "awkward," Haycox said. "It's a highly unusual action."
The Bethel district attorney's job is particularly challenging, said Anchorage criminal defense lawyer Marcelle McDannel. She worked as an assistant district attorney in Bethel in the mid-1990s and still defends people in the region, sometimes with Stein on the other side.
"That is the most difficult job in the state in terms of being a lawyer," McDannel said. "The cases out there are just this influx of sex crimes, sexual abuse of a minor, sexual assault, with murder coming in on top of that. For a prosecutor it is a demanding, draining and often depressing caseload."
The young prosecutors assigned to the Bethel office turn over rapidly, and it's also been hard for past administrations to find someone to serve in the top job. Before Stein, there was a series of rotating acting district attorneys, of which Stein was one.
Stein is competent, hardworking and caring, McDannel said.
But one vocal critic has been Valcarce, who calls Stein "incompetent," unwilling to negotiate plea bargains and resistant to programs aimed at the rehabilitation of people damaged by alcohol and trauma in life.
Valcarce supported Walker in his campaign for governor. He contributed $1,000 to Walker's election effort -- $500 in 2013 and the same in 2014 -- and another $500 to the "unity ticket" of Walker, who ran as an independent, and Byron Mallott, a Democrat. After the election, Valcarce served on Walker's public safety transition committee.
Walker, an attorney who specialized in oil and gas matters, said he couldn't recall any discussion with Valcarce about Stein during the campaign. He said he didn't remember when they discussed it.
Valcarce said he had donated more generously to other political campaigns over the years.
"I've given to Republicans, Democrats, all over the gamut," Valcarce said.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission currently includes only contributions going back to 2012, which showed the contributions to Walker and Walker-Mallott and one $500 contribution in 2012 to Carl Morgan, a Republican running for state House.
In an interview Monday, Valcarce said he was concerned about Stein pushing for jail time in cases where he thought it wasn't merited but also about a case that wasn't prosecuted, one centered on former Tuluksak teacher Martin Bowman. He brought a civil suit in 2012 against the Yupiit School District that accused Bowman of sexually abusing nine girls. It was settled last year for $2 million.
Stein said Tuesday that the criminal case had weaknesses including that the girls' stories contradicted one another.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing