The Alaska National Guard is calling on lawmakers to pass a new version of the state's code of military justice next year to help fix a lack of accountability that allowed sexual harassment and other offenses to go unchecked for years.
In a hearing Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee, Capt. Forrest Dunbar presented the latest, 59-page version of the proposed code, which grew out of the guard scandal that marred former Gov. Sean Parnell's tenure.
Dunbar, who's pushing the bill for the guard after leading the bill-drafting project, told committee members the measure would create a "functioning system of military justice" for Alaska. It would replace a 60-year-old version that's never been used for a court martial — the military version of a trial.
In an interview this week, Dunbar, who lost a race for Congress in 2014 when he was a part-time guardsman, said commanders are looking forward to using the new code. And he urged lawmakers to approve the bill when they convene for the legislative session in January.
"None of these tools are available to us until the Legislature passes it, hopefully this spring," he said. "We want this to become the law."
Tuesday's hearing saw lawmakers picking apart the latest version of the bill — three of the committee members are attorneys — and asking Dunbar technical questions about proposed legal procedures and practices.
Nonetheless, the judiciary chair, Anchorage Republican Gabrielle LeDoux, said she expects to pass the bill from her committee early in the legislative session.
"I thought we really had it under control and at the end the day we were going to say, 'This is going to be a wrap,'" she said in a phone interview after Tuesday's hearing. But, she added, "We just realized that maybe this needs a little bit more work."
The state's outdated code lacks "teeth," according to a federal report released by Parnell last year, which described the guard relying on other measures that left it "not properly administering justice" to its 4,000 members.
Criminal offenses by guard members are supposed to be prosecuted by Alaska's civilian authorities, and some of the allegations made by guard whistleblowers were that the Anchorage police didn't pursue some cases of sexual assaults. Some cops were themselves part-time members of the guard.
The old, dysfunctional military justice code kept the guard from effectively punishing military offenses like insubordination, taking leave without permission or being drunk on duty.
Guard members who broke those rules were only subject to administrative penalties — they couldn't be jailed, and they couldn't be dishonorably discharged. In fact, Dunbar said at Tuesday's hearing, no one in the history of the Alaska guard has ever been dishonorably discharged.
Lawmakers began their efforts to reform the military code before this year's legislative session, with Democrats introducing their own proposal. LeDoux, the Republican committee chair, ultimately moved ahead with a bill sponsored by her own committee.
The first version of the bill would have simply allowed the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which houses the guard, to create its code through regulation. But legislators instead decided to ask Dunbar to put the crimes and punishments into the bill itself, LeDoux said.
"If it's a crime, and something people are going to jail for, we felt the Legislature needed to have some input on that," she said.
Penalties outlined in the bill include up to a year in jail and a dishonorable discharge for writing a bad check, for breach of the peace, and for indecent exposure. The bill has several sections that apply to civilian offenses, including sexual assault and drunken driving, even though those types of cases are typically handled by state prosecutors.
The sexual assault and drunken driving provisions were added at the request of a working group convened by the guard to work on the code, Dunbar said.
Participants, including high-ranking commanders and low-level guard members, said they wanted to make sure crimes could still be prosecuted if civilian authorities decide not to.
In recent weeks, the guard has been testing the new code using scenarios developed by Dunbar. One features hypothetical members who have tested positive for different drugs, from marijuana to Valium.
Other efforts by the guard to fix the problems documented in the federal report include boosting the ranks of its attorneys, with three full-time and 12 part-time staff up from one full-time and eight part-time staff two years ago, Dunbar said.
There's also a new law enforcement officer at the guard, the provost marshal, who's in charge of working with local police, he said.
Lt. Col. Ken Blaylock, a retired guard member who initially raised some of the allegations of sexual assault and other abuses, said in a phone interview the update to the justice code was "long overdue" — though it won't be a panacea for the guard's problems, he added.
The new code won't affect the treatment of crimes by police, Blaylock said, which was one of his complaints. But, he added: "It will affect the environment that allowed that stuff to be looked over and ignored."
And the changes being proposed to the code appear to go along with a broader effort to reform the guard under new leadership, said Patricia Collins, the retired judge who investigated charges of sexual abuse and harassment for the Walker administration.
"What's really good is that people are talking about it and looking hard and trying to come up with some institutional improvements," she said in a phone interview.
With the attitudes expressed by LeDoux and Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, it appears that the reform bill could enjoy smooth passage through the Legislature next year.
In a phone interview Tuesday, McGuire said the bill is a "must-pass" measure, though she added she understands her counterparts in the House still "need more time" to work on it.
"It's going to take them a while to get comfortable with something like this that involves so many changes," McGuire said. She added: "I think the community of Alaskans are looking to us to address the wrongs that have occurred over many decades."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing