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Parnell reaffirms authority of acting Alaska National Guard chief

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 6, 2014

Just days after undoing a major staffing decision by the Alaska National Guard's interim adjutant general, Gov. Sean Parnell is standing by his appointee to guide the guard during its transition out of scandal and low morale and into new leadership.

"General (Mike) Bridges has full command authority related to guard operations," Parnell said in an interview Monday.

Brig. Gen. Bridges is acting adjutant general, a position held by Brig. Gen. Thomas Kaktus until Katkus' resignation last month at the governor's request.

Amid a scandal that involves sexual and other misconduct, alleged fraud and favoritism, Parnell had promised that more guard officials would be fired. But on Thursday, when Bridges took action, Parnell quickly reversed it.

"The only limitation is that I expect communication before relieving senior leadership, particularly those who are applying for the job of adjutant general or who have expressed an interest in it," Parnell explained.

Bridges had sought the departure of someone who was competing to be the next adjutant general, a position Bridges had himself applied for. Bridges had no way of knowing who the other candidates were, Parnell said, which is why he wants Bridges to clear decisions involving senior officers with the governor's staff.

On Monday, Parnell said it was important to maintain a credible and trustworthy process for selecting who will be the guard's next top leader.

It's a job Brig. General Catherine Jorgensen wants, which made Bridges' effort to fire her ill-timed, according to Parnell.

Jorgensen is the first woman in Alaska Army National Guard history to be promoted to general and had served as Katkus' chief of staff.

On Monday, Parnell said even if Jorgensen not been a candidate for adjutant general, he still would have needed more information before deciding whether Bridges' decision to fire her was warranted. Bridges would need to be able to answer questions including whether he'd consulted with the National Guard Bureau, the organization that conducted the investigation into the Alaska National Guard and which is also now assisting with the reforms, and also whether the claims against Jorgensen were substantiated, Parnell said.

Late Monday, Bridges said his decision hadn't come lightly.

"As the acting adjutant general, I felt it was my responsibility to decisively and swiftly make decisions in response to the OCI assessment findings and recommendations," Bridges said in a written reply provided by the Alaska National Guard's Office of Public Affairs. "This is a very difficult time in our organization, and decisions are not easy."

OCI is the National Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations, which conducted the inquiry and report that led to Katkus' departure.

Along with Jorgensen, Bridges had also on Thursday sought the departure of Col. Edith Grunwald, director for human resources and chief of staff for the Alaska Air National Guard.

Neither Jorgensen nor Grunwald has had any official change in employment status, according to Candis Olmstead, public affairs director for the Alaska National Guard, despite Grunwald and two other Guard members – an attorney and a noncommissioned officer – having been identified this weekend by the governor's office as individuals who had been asked to leave.

On Thursday, Bridges asked Jorgensen and Grunwald to submit retirement paperwork, but neither had acted on the request before Bridges withdrew it, Olmstead said.

The National Guard Bureau's investigative report included criticisms of the guard's handling of discrimination and harassment claims, issues that would fall under the responsibility of equal employment managers.

The OCI report states "the AKNG leadership has failed to provide the resources, emphasis and oversight in the implementation of the AKNG EEO/EO program."

Investigators also found that the guard's equal employment office did not maintain a database to track complaints. The office reported being aware of three complaints, which appears to represent a mere fraction of actual cases. Two hundred instances of harassment and discrimination were identified in a survey conducted by the investigative team, of which 35 were reported to someone within the chain of command, according to the report.

In a statement Monday, Bridges said in seeking to remove individuals from their positions he wasn't acting on any "specific recommended personnel changes" stemming from the OCI investigation.

The Alaska National Guard has two job searches underway for equal employment managers. The position on the Army side offers $63,000 to $82,000 per year and advises senior management. The position on the Air Guard side offers $76,000 to $98,000 per year and reports directly to the adjutant general. Grunwald supervises both positions. The application period opened Sept. 26 and closes Oct. 14.

On Monday, Parnell said there were more than 10 applicants for the adjutant general position, which closes Oct. 12. Interviews will be conducted later in October, with two or three names being forwarded for consideration, he said.

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