Gov. Sean Parnell defended his actions in response to complaints and concerns about the Alaska National Guard, asserting at a news conference Thursday that he took action often and over many years.
Meeting with reporters at his Anchorage office, Parnell sought to dispel what he called "false and misleading" statements about his responsiveness to information he received during his tenure regarding the guard and its senior officials.
"Every time I heard an allegation, every time I got an allegation or my office did, we investigated that with guard leadership," Parnell said even as he acknowledged the same leadership turned out to be the cause of some of the guard's biggest problems.
Parnell also disclosed that three more guard officials were being fired in addition to his earlier decision to ask for the resignations of the state's top guardsman, Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, and the deputy commissioner in the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, McHugh Pierre. Citing state personnel policies, Parnell provided no details on the three, including their names and ranks.
A recently released federal report documented serious problems within the guard, including a culture of distrust, fraud, and real and perceived favoritism. Allegations that sexual assault cases were being covered up and mishandled largely fueled the initial inquiries, although misconduct within the leadership that later emerged, was what ultimately distressed Parnell enough to call for someone other than the guard's leadership to look into what was going on.
Parnell was responding to a story in Alaska Dispatch News Thursday that documented numerous instances in which people came forward with complaints to Parnell or his staff with information. The news conference came a day after Parnell faced criticism at a candidates' forum in Ketchikan? from independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker.
"When someone comes to my office, as governor, to tell me about sexual assault going on in the National Guard, I will do an investigation immediately. I will not wait four years," Walker said during the debate. "To not do that sends a very wrong message to the victims and others who may be in similar situation."
When it was his turn to speak, Parnell characterized Walker's statements as a "big lie."
"When Bill Walker just said I that did nothing in the face of sexual assault victims coming to my office or me learning about them is an absolute falsehood. I went in, went to my leadership in the National Guard and investigated in 2010, and in fact multiple times in 2011 and 2012 as well, " he said.
Parnell maintains that it wasn't until February 2014, when an investigator was able to provide to him "specific facts about how our command structure was failing these victims," that he realized he needed to go outside guard leadership.
Parnell says he went to Katkus time and time again to follow up on concerns and each time walked away satisfied that things were being well handled. When the results of the National Guard Bureau's investigation were made public, revealing the extent of the cronyism and misconduct within the guard, Parnell relieved Katkus of his civilian and military duties. Katkus' top civilian aide, Pierre, followed.
In the wake of the report and findings from the National Guard Bureau, Parnell said he has realized his trust in Katkus was misplaced.
"I think I was misled on a number of occasions on how well the system was working," Parnell said Thursday.
Parnell confirmed Katkus remains under investigation but was not able to elaborate on how many ongoing investigations there are.
The National Guard Bureau has sent a team of specialists to Alaska help implement its recommended reforms and has a separate investigative team further looking into allegation of fraud, uncovered during the first investigation.
It's unclear who is now investigating Katkus. The National Guard Bureau has said it does not investigate general officers and refers questionable conduct it uncovers to the appropriate inspector general for further investigation.
Reporters pressed Parnell on why his administration wasn't releasing records about what his staff knew in the months and years leading up to Sept. 4, when the investigative report was made public and Katkus was asked to leave.
Parnell said strict privacy laws exist to protect victims from having their information released.
Parnell also expressed frustration that the work Alaska National Guard members do every day is being overshadowed by all of the attention on the guard's problems. Focusing on what's ahead also matters, he said, emphasizing that he wanted reassure guard members "that we are on track to restoring trust and confidence."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the National Guard Bureau refers investigations of general officers to an attorney general. Such investigations are referred to the appropriate inspector general.