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Former US House candidate Forrest Dunbar tapped to reform Alaska's military code

Alaska's top military official, Adjutant General Col. Laurie Hummel, has tapped U.S. National Guard Lt. Forrest Dunbar to help overhaul the state's code of military justice.

A 2014 Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, Dunbar announced Monday he is leaving the law firm Stoel Rives LLP to accept an assignment with the guard. Headed to Juneau on Wednesday, Dunbar, a weekend warrior now going on full-time duty, will work with soldiers, legislators and staff to continue military reforms underway since September, when a federal investigation uncovered numerous failures within the guard including the state's weak, outdated code of military justice.

"Lt. Dunbar is a judge advocate officer with training in military law. He is also admitted to the Alaska Bar, and has experience in Juneau," Hummel said by email Tuesday. "This makes him a logical choice to provide technical assistance and input on behalf of the Alaska National Guard."

"I was happy to accept," Dunbar said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It is a really important set of reforms."

As a member of the Alaska Army National Guard legal staff, Dunbar came in contact with some of the misconduct cases that became an election issue in the governor's race.

Now he'll provide technical and legal advice as a judge advocate and an officer of the Army guard.

"I will be speaking with and advising whomever would like to work with me on it and work with the guard on it," he said.

Alaska Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat who has introduced his own legal reform measure, praised Dunbar's appointment.

"I think it's a good move. (Dunbar has) a very impressive education background, he's articulate and knows the issues well," Wielechowski said.

Wielechowski late last month introduced his own 62-page version of proposed military justice reforms, Senate Bill 59.

"It's a very complex bill. I've drafted several pieces of oil tax legislation that didn't take this long," Wielechowski said.

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, and the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, have also introduced similar bills — Tuck's House Bill 121 and the committee's House Bill 126. Wielechowski said he and Tuck are "setting up an entirely new justice system within the state military."

Dunbar, Wielechowski and LeDoux, all attorneys, are hoping to navigate the tricky landscape that has already proved to be a substantial legal undertaking.

Guard members are subject only to the Army's Uniform Code of Military Justice when they are performing federal duties. When they are on normal state guard duty, they are under state jurisdiction. If they commit a serious crime, prosecution is left up to civilian authorities. While Alaska has a code of military justice, it hasn't changed much since it was enacted in 1955. It has little criminal enforcement and offers only mild punishments, according a legislative research report.

This has left the guard to deal with noncriminal misconduct as administrative personnel matters, a process that wasn't always carried out effectively or fairly, federal investigators found.

LeDoux said the House Judiciary Committee came up with its military justice reform package after Gen. Mike Bridges, who served as interim adjutant general before Hummel's appointment, indicated the Alaska guard needed more authority and more remedies to deal with misconduct.

"We want to come up with a bill to get things right," LeDoux said.

"Practically speaking, we do not have a functioning uniform code of military justice. We lack punitive articles and nonjudicial punishment, and are thus hamstrung in our disciplinary efforts," Hummel said.

It's the build-it-from-the-ground-up nature of the task that makes the job so difficult, further complicated by state and federal jurisdictions, Wielechowski said.

Because it's such a weighty, high-stakes task, having someone like Dunbar working within the administration is crucial, he said.

"There is clearly going to have to be someone within the executive branch looking at this and evaluating whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. We will have to have significant buy-in from the National Guard on this since they're the ones who have to live with it," Wielechowski said.

Dunbar, who got 41 percent of the vote in November to long-serving incumbent U.S. Rep. Don Young's 51 percent, isn't sure how long his new assignment will last or what it will mean to his political future. Partisan political activities will take a back seat to what he sees now as his most important task ahead.

"I am going to provide assistance any way I can. Everybody wants to see effective reform," Dunbar said.