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Former Parnell aide on the Alaska National Guard: 'Something just didn't seem right'

A former Republican legislator who received complaints about the Alaska National Guard as an aide to Gov. Sean Parnell said the governor's chief of staff ordered her to pass the concerns she heard to the head of the guard -- even when the complaints were about the guard's top leaders.

"I thought, 'If there is something here, the problem is only going to be made worse by including the commissioner of Military and Veterans Affairs,'" Nancy Dahlstrom, a former representative from Eagle River, said in an interview this week.

Dahlstrom, a conservative Republican who served three full terms in the House, quit in 2010 to become Parnell's military advisor, then had to resign after a month because the constitution barred her from jumping from the Legislature to the administration. Parnell hired her again, this time legitimately, in February 2012. She served for more than a year as the head of Parnell's Anchorage office and special assistant for veterans affairs.

During her time as an aide, Dahlstrom said, she did what she could to ensure complaints she received about the National Guard were dealt with. She said she passed information on to Parnell's chief of staff, Mike Nizich. And, at Nizich's direction, she also routed complaints to Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, who had the dual role of adjutant general of the guard and commissioner of the Military and Veterans Affairs Department. She said she hand-delivered a file thick with allegations to the Anchorage office of the FBI.

"Whether they were facts or allegations, I didn't know," she said of the complaints she heard. "But they were serious things, so I immediately told Mike Nizich."

Dahlstrom said she was repeatedly assured there was nothing to the claims. But in her mind, it just didn't add up. The complaints kept coming. She began to wonder if following the internal chain of command within the governor's office -- routing things to Nizich and on to Katkus -- was truly helpful.

Through Parnell's press secretary, Nizich denied that he directed complaints about Katkus to Katkus himself.

"That was not the case. The chief of staff would try to protect those who came forward with allegations of misconduct," according to Sharon Leighow, the governor's press secretary.

But Nizich didn't keep Katkus completely out of the loop. "He did talk with Gen. Katkus about the nature of what he was hearing/receiving," Leighow wrote in an email.

'It seems our confidentiality was compromised'

Parnell's handling of the guard scandal has become an issue in his re-election campaign. Parnell said he ensured that every complaint he received was investigated, and at one point asked the FBI to get involved. But he has refused to provide emails and other documents that would show what he and his staff knew and what they did about it.

Interviews and records obtained by reporters show that guard chaplains and other mid-level officers first brought concerns to Parnell in 2010 about sexual assaults, harassment, fraud, drug use and other problems. They said the fear of reprisals was so pervasive in the guard that many soldiers refused to complain even when they were victims, they said.

In 2011, about a month before Dahlstrom was rehired, one of the chaplains told Nizich he couldn't trust him any longer because he believed he was leaking complaints to Katkus.

The chaplain, recently retired Lt. Col. Rick Cavens, wrote Nizich on Dec. 22, 2011, "it seems our confidentiality was compromised as chaplains."

"At this point in time, I do not see you as a trusted agent for positive change and growth in the Alaska National Guard," Cavens told Nizich.

Nizich replied that he had "many conversations" with guard leadership "trying to figure out what needs to change." But he denied breaking trust.

"I have heard from individuals both active duty and retired and never breached confidence of those that have asked me to keep their conversations confidential," Nizich said. "I don't have much more to say to you except I am extremely frustrated right now and disappointed in receiving your communication suggesting I breached the chaplains' confidence."

The email thread was provided to Alaska Dispatch News by Cavens. The thread, with several more replies, appeared in a 352-page index of thousands of emails provided to Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Public Media by the state in response to a public records lawsuit the news organizations filed earlier this month. The index only shows the date of the email, the sender, recipients and subject -- when they haven't been redacted -- and represent a portion of the 12,000 emails that are likely responsive to the media request for public records. The emails themselves have not been released.

The index shows there were times when Dahlstrom sent messages to Nizich, and then either she or Nizich would forward those same messages to Katkus. At times, Katkus' top civilian aide, McHugh Pierre, also received the message.

It's impossible to tell from the index whether the main body of the messages contain concerns about the guard. But some of the email threads, based on their subject lines, appear to address guard-related complaints and allegations.

'I didn’t feel good about what I was hearing'

Dahlstrom left her state job in June to care for a sick family member, she said. She worked for the governor for more than a year, from 2012 to 2013, before moving on to other positions in state government.

Even as recently as this year, people continued to approach her for help with the problems in the guard, she said.

In September, a team of federal investigators from the National Guard Bureau in the Pentagon blasted the Alaska guard for leadership failures, misconduct and harassment. "I was glad that I had acted on the information that had been given to me and followed through to the appropriate channels because the whole thing just made me sick to my stomach," Dahlstrom said.

In April 2012, after two months on the job, people were starting to come to Dahlstrom for help, she said. Col. Robert Doehl met with Dahlstrom April 12, 2012. A senior member of the Alaska Air National Guard, Doehl came armed with documents to back up his observations that people were being treated poorly, and that the guard as a workplace under the Katkus loyalists who had risen to power was oppressive and unfair.

He urged her to dig deeper. He provided surveys of soldiers on the guard's leadership climate and suggested Dahlstrom request the survey's comment section for a true understanding of core dysfunctions.

"The high level of participation in this survey coupled with it being statewide, both Army and Air Guard, mean that the scores of written comments provide singularly comprehensive insight into the psyche of the Alaska National Guard," he wrote to Dahlstrom in an email sent on April 16, a few days after their meeting. The email was provided by Doehl.

At the time, Doehl was entrenched in a battle with guard leadership over his future. He suspected Dahlstrom knew this, but instead he talked about deeper problems nagging the guard. She seemed genuinely concerned about the information he had brought forward, he said in an interview Tuesday.

"I was surprised," Dahlstrom recalled. "Because, again, if what was being told to me was true, it was really, really bad. I didn't feel good about what I was hearing. I remember that the things that he brought up were very, very serious and he did bring a packet with him. I gave it to Nizich to give to the governor," Dahlstrom said.

A visit to the FBI

Another person, who identified himself as a civilian contractor on base, called to discuss numerous allegations, and kept the information coming by way of email and document deliveries, she said.

There were tales of unfair treatment, thwarted promotions, sexual assault, gun smuggling, drug running, prostitution rings, pornographic web sites, fraud, fear, retaliation and more.

"I didn't know if it was true. It was obviously very serious, and so I forwarded everything to Nizich and Katkus as directed by the chief of staff," Dahlstrom said.

Nizich, usually in a follow-up phone call, would acknowledge he knew about the allegations, then reassure her that the complaints had been looked into and there wasn't anything to worry about, Dahlstrom said. Nizich also mentioned the involvement of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich's office and a prior FBI inquiry that had yielded nothing, she said.

But Dahlstrom got the sense that the people who were coming forward weren't being taken seriously and were perceived as disgruntled employees.

"The stuff just kept coming and coming and coming," she said. "Something just didn't seem right."

At some point, a large file was dropped off at her office that contained documents, court records, CDs and copies of material found on the internet. Dahlstrom let Nizich and Katkus know it had arrived, but no one seemed to want to take ownership of it. She called the FBI. She doesn't remember who came up with the idea to bring in the FBI, but she did the leg work. The agency had her seal the file in an envelope and hand-deliver it to an armed security guard on the first floor of the agency's Anchorage office. Dahlstrom heard nothing more about it.

"You just don't run around saying all of this stuff. If it's not true, somebody needs to be stopped from defamation of character. If it is true, it needs to be stopped, because it is criminal," Dahlstrom said.