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Report calls for apology, accountability for toxic culture at Alaska National Guard

A new report on the scandal-plagued Alaska National Guard calls for accountability from the top, more help for victims and the reopening of investigations into two possible sexual assaults, plus another mystery in which a woman died just before bringing her case to police.

The report released Monday morning also urges a deeper look at Fort Greely, where the Alaska Army National Guard operates the nation's main missile defense system and where the commander was forced out in 2013 after an investigation into rampant adultery, illegal under military code.

And though its focus was on sexual misconduct, the report recommends a criminal investigation of reported fraud and other financial wrongdoing.

At a news conference Monday in Anchorage announcing the report, Gov. Bill Walker said it was time to look ahead but not forget what went wrong.

"Sometimes you can't get into the future until you resolve the past," Walker said.

The news conference was attended by Attorney General Craig Richards and Walker's adjutant general at the Alaska National Guard, Brig. Gen. Laurie Hummel.

The report by retired Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins, who also attended the news conference, underscored already known dysfunction and despair within the Alaska National Guard, with mishandling of reported rapes, blatant sexual misconduct, and reports of other types of bad and sometimes criminal behavior.

But Collins' 93-page report, sought by Walker, also goes beyond a scathing report issued last September after a Pentagon investigation requested by then-Gov. Sean Parnell.

"I reviewed truckloads of material in the case," Collins said at the news conference. "My family came to call my office 'the bunker.'"

The problems within the Alaska National Guard stretch back years. Military chaplains went to Parnell in 2010 with an assertion that a "culture of fear and corruption are smothering morale." The chaplains' whistleblowing was well documented in media accounts over the past year, and the Collins report also singles out the chaplains for their efforts in bringing the guard's many problems to light. Rick Koch, who served as a lieutenant colonel and was statewide command chaplain for the guard, told Collins the past five years were "more stressful than his war-zone deployments."

Parnell turned repeatedly to his top guard commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, for a resolution to the complaints. Then the National Guard Bureau in the Pentagon issued its report last September that showed leadership failures at the very top allowed a toxic and corrupt climate of sexual assaults, sexual misconduct, misuse of guard equipment and fraud. Katkus was forced out as adjutant general, the commander of the state guard, the day that federal report was released to the public.

"The Alaska National Guard has begun improvements to systemic problems," the new report said. "Rebuilding trust in leadership and a safe, confidential and fair response to sexual assault and harassment reporting will be challenging and will not happen overnight."

'Mishandling of victim complaints'

The report recommends the state apologize for "past mishandling of victim complaints and privacy rights within the Alaska National Guard." Some victims said their identities were improperly disclosed to others in the guard, adding to their distress.

And at the news conference, Hummel followed through with that recommendation, saying, "Alaskans deserve an apology."

"We were wrong," she said. "We must do better. We can do better, and we are on the path to making things right."

As one of his first acts, Walker in January hired Collins to examine National Guard sexual assault and misconduct cases from 2010 to 2014. She was told to determine whether the prior administration acted appropriately and to recommend whether further investigation or prosecution was in order.

Collins described her role as looking at "the next steps" after the Pentagon released its 229-page report — including the response by local law enforcement and the Alaska Attorney General's Office.

The executive branch -- what was then the Parnell administration -- knew or could have known about the troubled command climate in the Alaska National Guard between 2010 to 2014, Collins said in her report.

Collins said at the press conference that she did not find "an overt cover-up" but instead "a very unfortunate lack of information sharing" between the governor's office and the guard. Collins said that problems stemmed from "systemic" issues within the guard. When asked to cite specifics, she said there were problems in "the keeping of record."

"When you don't maintain adequate records … you facilitate a culture that sort of feeds upon itself, where folks, those persons that feel like they can bully or take advantages of others, do."

Issues with the command climate "likely impeded sexual assault and harassment reporting," she found.

Among her recommendations:

• Listen to the chaplains. One told Collins that "chaplains hear a great deal in hallways and parking lots and places in between," the report said. "Going to a counselor requires that you admit you have a problem."

• Create a secure, online forum for victims on the state of Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault website. This would provide a place for victims who may never be able to talk to a counselor.

• "Trust but verify" command climate and leadership. Surveys of National Guard members over the troubled years found depleted morale, perceptions of favoritism and ethical lapses, and a distrust of commanders. But little changed. Collins recommended that the National Guard maintain a summary of surveys and sessions aimed at capturing the sense of guard members and that whenever the surveys show significant issues, the governor should immediately get the information.

• Creation of a database summarizing complaints of sexual misconduct, discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment and fraud. The information could go to the governor, the Legislature, Alaska's congressional delegation and the public.

Collins also recommended more investigation. She did not include many specifics in the public version of the report about cases she's recommending for further investigation or prosecution. That information was provided separately in a secret addendum to Attorney General Richards, including documentation related to allegations of financial misdeeds and fraud. Collins said she didn't want to release sensitive details about victims and incomplete investigations, but wanted to see disclosure when probes were complete.

"Given the serious nature of the allegations and the troubling documents that I reviewed, I recommend that the results of these investigations be made public," Collins said.

As part of the changes she's instituting, Hummel introduced the first-ever provost marshal, Brian Fuchs, who will act as a liaison between the guard and law enforcement.

When asked whether the state will follow recommendations to reopen cases, Fuchs said additional evidence had been forwarded to Alaska State Troopers and the Anchorage Police Department, and those agencies would determine whether to proceed.

A premature death

One of the two sexual assault investigations that Collins urged be reopened involved an out-of-state individual who was believed to be active duty military, the report said. But the identity of the perpetrator wasn't known. Military and civilian law enforcement investigators were unable to find the suspect. Information found in her investigation provides a new lead, she wrote.

In one of the cases, she urged that it remain open until all new evidence is evaluated and that the victim should be consulted before any final charging decision is made, her report said.

Another case that she recommended be reopened concerns a 2011 report of sexual assault from an overseas deployment by National Guard member.

The woman "prematurely died under unusual circumstances before making a formal report of the sexual assault to police," Collins wrote.

Collins didn't name the woman in the report, and none of the officials at the news conference would either. But the description tracks closely to that of National Guard member Michelle Clark, who died in January 2011. Her death came at a time of such high dysfunction within the National Guard that her family and others came to believe it very likely could have been foul play.

With the system for reporting rape within the National Guard broken, Clark was among a group of victims who turned to a trusted confidant, Lt. Col. Ken Blaylock. He said in previous interviews that she came to him out of fear for her life and was planning to tell him more after a weekend, but died before that happened.

In her report, Collins said she was unable to obtain all needed information and in particular lacked a detailed forensic analysis from the guard member's autopsy.

"It is my opinion that this investigation should be reopened, at least for purposes of verifying correct forensic analysis and full investigation," the report said.

Collins said that those who breached confidentiality should face consequences including criminal prosecution but noted the complexities of doing so "because of the hybrid federal/state nature of typical National Guard service."

"While the statute of limitations likely bars prosecution for violation of privacy rights prior to 2010, it is not too late to apologize," the report said.

Official misconduct involving a National Guard senior official was revealed in a 2011 Department of Army inspector general investigation, but the wrongdoing may still need further action, Collins said.

Among other lapses, the official diverted an Army helicopter to an unscheduled stop in Idaho to deliver trophy moose antlers from Alaska to a taxidermist, her report said. The official also overcharged the government for personal travel expenses, held an unauthorized political fundraiser at his home and authorized leave for a sports tournament even after being told that was not legitimate. Collins does not name the official but previous reports have identified the officer at the center of those allegations as retired Col. Tim DeHaas, a former Army Guard chief of staff who received a high level guard honor in 2011 even as complaints were emerging.

When asked about cases where misconduct was documented and no action was taken, Hummel said she has taken action when she could. Speaking generally, she said that "there are some wrongs that can be redressed, so for example, a characteristic of service, or a person leaving the service with a particular grade or a particular award in hand, these sorts of things."

The report recommends a follow-up look at the 2013 Fort Greely investigation, which Collins called exhaustive. It examined reports that Lt. Col. Joseph Miley, then the guard commander of of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion, allowed extramarital affairs and a sexually charged environment at what is supposed to be one of the nation's key defense installations. Miley was stripped of his command in June 2013.

But that may not be the end of it.

"I found multiple allegations of sexual misconduct that soldiers made to their lower-level chain of command that went unanswered, in some cases for years," Collins wrote. The Alaska National Guard needs to review her investigation and interviews to see if more action is needed, she wrote.

"If there is to be full accountability, it should be at every level of the command," the report said.

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Jill Burke contributed to this story.

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