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Email between top Parnell aides describes 2010 meeting with Guard chaplain

  • Author: Richard Mauer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 27, 2014

A newly released email shows Gov. Sean Parnell's chief of staff was told in November 2010 that problems in the Alaska National Guard reached straight to the top and that soldiers feared reprisals for speaking out about sexual assaults and other issues.

The email, from Katherine TePas, Parnell's sexual assault coordinator, to chief of staff Mike Nizich described a meeting TePas held Nov. 7, 2010, with a guard chaplain whom she described as "very credible" in his assertions of broad problems in the National Guard in Alaska. The email also refers to an ongoing FBI investigation of the guard for drugs and gun running.

The TePas-Nizich email is part of the first tiny batch of documents released by the Alaska attorney general's office in response to a public records lawsuit brought against Parnell and his office by Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Public Media. The two news organizations sued after the governor's office turned aside written requests for documents that would show what Parnell was told about problems in the guard, when he was told and what he did in response.

Parnell has said he heard about sexual assaults starting in 2010, but when he inquired about them, he was told they were being investigated or were otherwise dealt with. But last month, the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau delivered a scathing report that said leadership failures in the Alaska guard persisted through this year, allowing sexual assaults, fraud and other problems to fester. Parnell fired Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, the adjutant general, when the investigative report was released Sept. 4.

In response to the media lawsuit, the attorney general's office released a 352-page index of thousands of emails potentially responsive to records requests involving the Alaska National Guard scandal. But the administration only provided copies of two actual email messages.

One was the Nizich-TePas email, about half of which was blacked out under claims of the executive privilege or privacy exceptions to public records law. The other was a copy of an email thread between Nizich and the chief guard chaplain, Lt. Col. Rick Koch, which most media already possessed from other sources.

TePas sent her email to Nizich after an unusual Sunday afternoon meeting with Koch arranged by National Guard whistleblower Ken Blaylock, a former lieutenant colonel who lost his job in 2012. TePas said the meeting took place at a "neutral location" and lasted about 90 minutes. She told Nizich she took only "minimal notes" and said Koch didn't want to provide names "due to fear of reprisals."

TePas noted that Koch served overseas and had seen combat. She said he brought a document summarizing concerns with Katkus but refused to let her take it. Koch said he would only leave the document "if I could ensure him that the information would not make it back directly to (the adjutant general) Katkus," she wrote.

It's unknown whether TePas offered any assurances of protection from Katkus. The remainder of that paragraph is blacked out with a citation asserting "executive privilege," an exception to sunshine laws generally reserved for internal deliberations in the executive branch.

The two emails were attached to a certification by Nizich that he had searched his personal emails for any related to the guard and found only those. TePas appeared to have sent her email from a personal account as well. Her return email address was redacted with a privacy privilege asserted — "personal email address."

Under state policy, public business is supposed to be conducted using official state email accounts. If, for convenience during off-hours, a message is sent from a personal account, it's supposed to be copied to the state email server. Parnell's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said the emails were instead "printed as a state record."

The meeting between TePas and Koch took place nearly two weeks before Koch and two other chaplains phoned Parnell in a teleconference from a church office in Anchorage, warning of serious problems in the guard. The chaplains and three others expanded their concerns in another conversation with Parnell on Dec. 3, 2010.

In an interview Monday, Blaylock, now the owner of a small Palmer farm and a martial arts instructor, said the events that led to the TePas meeting with Koch began about month before when he stopped to chat with Koch himself.

"I got a whole bunch of stuff off my chest," Blaylock said. At the time, Blaylock said, he was being belittled by Katkus and others, "being made out to be a nut job." About 10 minutes after he left Koch, Koch came into his office, shut the door and cried, Blaylock said.

"He was frustrated, totally frustrated," Blaylock said. "He said he is getting so many victims coming to him" but couldn't report specific details because of his duty as a chaplain to maintain confidences.

"I said, 'You've got to take this to somebody, somewhere, somehow above you to say what you are seeing.' He said he'd be willing to do that because he had tried everything else. Basically the chain of command was totally screwed up," Blaylock said. Because the governor is the commander in chief of the guard, he figured that complaining to Parnell's staff wasn't going outside the chain of command, only going above Katkus' head, Blaylock said.

Blaylock heard about TePas from a former state trooper working for the guard, and he talked to TePas about two weeks later. On Nov. 6, a Saturday, he placed a call to TePas, telling her Koch wanted to meet with her. On Sunday morning, Blaylock called TePas again, then put Koch on the line.

Koch said he remembers meeting with TePas but couldn't recall details.

"It was 2010 — so much has happened that I'm afraid to speak to it just because I can't remember what I said or what I requested," Koch said Monday.

In her email, TePas said Koch's document "backed up statements made by Blaylock."

"Koch has had several contacts with victims of sexual assault who have not come forward due to fear of reprisal and actual reprisal," TePas told Nizich.

She also wrote about an ongoing FBI investigation, saying Koch didn't believe he could help because he didn't have specific information on criminal activities related to "guns and drugs."

Leighow, Parnell's spokesperson, said the governor wasn't available for an interview. But she said that by the time TePas met with Koch, "an FBI investigation, called for by our office, was underway."

She said that in October 2010, Nizich had asked the FBI to investigate allegations in the guard "that included assault, sexual abuse, misuse of resources, drug trafficking and transporting illegal weapons." She said the FBI's then-special agent in charge of the Anchorage office, Kevin Fryslie, conducted a six-week investigation, then reported back to Nizich "there was nothing to the allegations."

Fryslie, now an Anchorage police officer, said he couldn't comment on any FBI investigation from his time at the agency. The current Anchorage FBI spokesman, agent Kevin Donovan, didn't return a message left with his assistant.