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Alaska Dispatch News sues Gov. Parnell for National Guard records

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 8, 2014

Alaska Dispatch News sued Gov. Sean Parnell on Wednesday, asking a judge to force the governor's office to release public records related to the ongoing scandal within the Alaska National Guard.

The news organization, along with its co-plaintiff Alaska Public Media, claims the governor's office has been wrongly denying public records requests that could help voters verify whether Parnell acted swiftly in dealing with numerous allegations about mishandled sexual assaults, harassment, fraud, favoritism and other misconduct, including abuse of power, within the guard over the past several years.

The two media outlets made the decision to sue after public records requests by their reporters were met with long delays and ultimately rejected by Randal Ruaro, the policy director and special counsel in the governor's office, in broad-sweeping denial letters.

ADN and Alaska Public Media are asking a judge for an expedited hearing on the matter, given the Nov. 4 election is less than a month away.

"The right to see and consider these documents is especially urgent in the specific and immediate context of the general election to be held next month. The National Guard Scandal has become an issue in the race for the State's highest office. By delaying, denying, and otherwise obstructing access to the public records at issue, the Office of the Governor is interfering with the right and ability of Alaska voters to fully, fairly, and timely consider matters relevant to the election of our next Governor," John McKay, the lawyer hired by the news outlets to appeal the state's decision to withhold documents, wrote in his brief, filed late Wednesday.

ADN and Alaska Public Media are asking the court to order Parnell to immediately produce the requested records, create an index of records it will not release and state the reasons for withholding them, direct individual employees in the governor's office to search for and turn over relevant documents, and ask Mike Nizich, Parnell's chief of staff, to certify that he has looked for and forwarded relevant emails from his personal email account.

At issue is how much information Parnell and his executive staff had about problems plaguing the guard over the years and how well they reacted to the allegations. The governor says he took all allegations seriously and followed up on every complaint only to be repeatedly misled by the man he was seeking answers from, the guard's top commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus.

"We think this an important issue for the people of Alaska and an important news story," McKay said. "Right now there is a particular concern that all the facts that can be considered by voters in a general election come out."

In September, Parnell released an investigative report that documented numerous failures within the guard, including that "actual and perceived favoritism, ethical misconduct, and fear of reprisal are eroding trust and confidence in AKNG leadership."

Parnell forced Katkus out the same day the report became public. Katkus' chief civilian aide, deputy commissioner for military and veterans affairs McHugh Pierre, soon followed. Katkus, a former Anchorage police officer, remains under investigation.

Under separate requests, Alaska Dispatch News reporter Lisa Demer and Alaska Public Radio Network reporter Alexendra Gutierrez sought access to guard-related emails to or from Nizich. Because chaplains within the Alaska National Guard had sent their growing concerns about the agency's toxic climate to Nizich's personal email account, reporters asked that guard-related correspondence from Nizich's personal email account also be provided to the media.

In April, during an interview with APRN, Parnell said that once he learned about the communication to Nizich's personal email account, he directed his top aide to forward any such emails to his state account, where they would then become a public record.

It took the state four months to deny APRN's records request, and more than three months to deny Alaska Dispatch News' request. These and subsequent requests by reporters have also sought communications between the governor's office, the adjutant general and top officials at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

By law, the state has 10 days to respond to records requests. It may seek an extension but must give notice of it within the first 10-day period.

Without identifying whether any of the requested emails exist, the state offered several reasons why it would not produce them or any other records involving the same topics. In denial letters sent Sept. 26, Ruaro explained several exemptions and laws that allowed the emails to be withheld, including deliberative process and the need to protect "the right to privacy of victims and alleged victims."

Ruaro also stated that people accused of misconduct also have a constitutional right to privacy when disclosure of the material "could reasonably lead to embarrassment, harm, or retaliation." Finally, he cited that confidentiality also extends to members of the clergy, in whom victims have confided.

The constitutional right to privacy, protection of statements made to clergy, and the state's policy to protect personal and confidential information are important, Ruaro said in his letter. "Without it, victims would be deterred from coming forward and seeking help," Ruaro wrote.

Parnell has said he took action every time he was made aware of complaints, but critics, including sexual assault survivors and other victims and witnesses to harassment and misconduct, have remained critical that Parnell was too slow to act.

"We don't take a position on whether the governor acted properly or not in response to the problems with the National Guard," McKay said. "He makes a case that he did everything he reasonably could given what he knew at the time. His critics say he didn't act quickly or effectively enough. Either way, this has become important in the 2014 gubernatorial election and we think that voters deserve to have as many facts as possible to make up their own minds about who is right."

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