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Documents show deep role of governor's staff in response to National Guard complaints

An initial review of Alaska National Guard-related documents released by the state Friday in response to a media lawsuit shows the Parnell administration received more complaints about the guard than have so far been reported.

But so many words and paragraphs among the 596 pages of emails and attached documents were redacted by state lawyers and the administration that the significance of some of the correspondence was difficult to discern.

As abbreviated and scattered over time as the first batch of released emails are, they still shed light on how Gov. Sean Parnell's office responded to crises and concerns in the guard and show the deep involvement of two of Parnell's top aides: chief of staff Mike Nizich and his deputy, Cindy Sims.

Sims specialized in sexual assault matters and doubled as the governor's director of international trade. Nearly all the email conversations about problems in the National Guard went through Nizich or Sims, or both.

The attorney general's office made the document dump Friday afternoon in response to a court order in a public records lawsuit brought by Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Public Media. The news organizations sued the state after records requests going back to May were denied or ignored by the governor's office.

The email batch and a log of withheld material was the first of several expected to be released in the coming days. Attorneys with the Alaska Department of Law said they would work through the weekend reviewing more documents in an effort to get them out before Tuesday's election. The guard scandal has become a campaign issue in the governor's race, with Parnell on the defensive over why he didn't respond more aggressively to concerns about sexual assaults and misconduct, cronyism, fraud and other problems raised by whistleblowers and victims over the last four years.

The material was so voluminous that two Alaska Dispatch News reporters spent the afternoon going through them and couldn't analyze them all. The news organization posted the documents on its website and asked readers for help finding significant portions.

One former guard chaplain, Lt. Col. Matt Friese, emerged in the emails as a major go-between. He said in one of the 2011 emails to Nizich that he never expected to be an emissary between the troops and the governor's office. But he and other chaplains were put on special duty counseling guard members and families after the fatal crash of a guard C-17 plane in 2010, and that put him in touch with other day-to-day concerns among the troops and officers.

In an email dated Feb. 4, 2011, Friese told Nizich he was "drawn into an area I had no idea existed before. As I understood the situation, there was no way to deal with this other than raise it to the top."

Later, in another email, Friese said he was conveying another chaplain's view when he likened what is happening in the guard "to an abusive relationship."

In one reply, Nizich said he was taking the complaints seriously.

"I have had discussions with various leaders as well as folks in the trenches at the ANG. I continue to meet with the top management folks at DMVA. Thanks for the information I will do some follow up," Nizich wrote.

Friese, a former staffer at Grace Christian School in Anchorage, has left the state and has not granted interviews.

In some emails, material is blacked out to protect the privacy of some victims and personal information like cellphone numbers of others. But in some cases, the redactions are almost comical.

On April 28, 2014, Nizich sent an email to McHugh Pierre, then the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The subject of the email was blank and all four lines of text had thick black bars drawn through them.

Pierre replied within the hour, copying his message to Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, then his boss and the adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard.

"Sure thing," he said. "Here's my recommendation:"

What followed were 14 lines of blacked-out text in what looked like three paragraphs.

"Please let me know if you need anything else," Pierre ended cheerfully.

The state didn't say why it was censoring those lines, but in other cases, attorneys or the governor's office cited privacy, law enforcement, executive or deliberative process, the attorney-client privilege and the state executive branch ethics law, which prohibits disclosure of certain complaints.

Pierre and Katkus were fired in September by Parnell after a scathing investigative report by the National Guard Bureau in the Pentagon found that leaders in the Alaska Guard allowed a toxic climate to persist over the years.

The emails showed Katkus and the governor's office express concern when outsiders began looking into the guard.

On Jan. 25, 2012, David Ramseur, chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, asked Nizich if he had "time to chat."

"Need to tell you what we're picking up as it sounds like a problem that could bite us both," Ramseur said. Two months later, Ramseur again writes Nizich, telling him the problems are continuing.

Then, in an April 10, 2012, letter addressed to Begich by Gen. Craig McKinley, the then-chief of the National Guard Bureau, McKinley thanked Begich for raising concerns about the Alaska guard and vowed they would be "thoroughly investigated." He said top guard officials in Alaska would be subjected to inspector general investigations by the Army and Air Force, the state guard's sexual assault program would be inspected, and a team would fly to Alaska to prepare a full assessment of the 176th and 168th wings of the guard.

"Looks like they will be investigating," Nizich wrote Katkus after getting a copy of McKinley's letter. "Call me."

When McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Sean Cockerham told Katkus in 2013 he was preparing a story for the Anchorage Daily News and other newspapers on sexual assaults and misconduct in the Alaska guard, it set off alarm bells. Katkus sent proposed answers to written questions to Nizich, Sims and the governor's press secretary, Sharon Leighow.

"Here we go again," Nizich wrote, but deferred responses to Cockerham to the others.

When the Sunday article appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on Oct. 27, 2013, Katkus sent the others a link to the online version at 7:45 a.m. That night at 11:10 Katkus was still working. He sent an email saying he planned to talk to some of the people quoted in the story -- "fact checking," he said.

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