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Parnell waited years to take direct action on National Guard misconduct

As the Alaska National Guard sexual misconduct and leadership scandal evolves into a major issue in his re-election bid, Gov. Sean Parnell is confronting two key questions: When did he learn about problems in the guard, and did he respond effectively?

The record shows that Parnell took nearly his entire four-year term to remove officials at the top of the guard and its related civilian department.

Parnell, officially the guard's civilian commander, has acknowledged receiving complaints about deeply entrenched problems within guard leadership starting in 2010, but he said they lacked specifics.

The problems didn't go away. More than three years later, on Feb. 28, Parnell called for help from the Pentagon.

Parnell's plea to the federal government was answered by Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, who sent a team of investigators to Alaska. They delivered a scathing report into leadership failures in the guard that created a toxic climate in which sexual assaults, sexual harassment, misuse of guard money and equipment, and outright fraud persisted for years.

The report was publicly released Sept. 4, in the middle of Parnell's re-election campaign. So far, Parnell has asked for and received the resignations of the state's top appointed guard official, Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, and his chief civilian aide, deputy commissioner McHugh Pierre of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Parnell says more firings may be ahead.

But what happened before Parnell's letter to Grass on Feb. 28?

The governor's office has declined to provide public records on contacts that whistleblowing guard members had with Parnell and his aides, turning down requests for letters, emails and other documents from reporters, citizens and legislators. Randy Ruaro, the governor's counsel and his contact for public records requests, cited privacy concerns of sexual assault victims and executive privilege as grounds for not releasing the documents, even as he acknowledged that Alaska media voluntarily withholds the identities of sexual assault victims.

However, 104 pages of letters, emails, notes and other documentation obtained by Alaska Dispatch News show a range of commissioned Army and Air Guard officers, including chaplains, began providing details of misdeeds to Parnell in 2010 -- and continued for years.

The record shows the first contact was Oct. 14, 2010, when Rick Koch, a lieutenant colonel and the state-command chaplain for the guard, asked a neighbor who knew Parnell for help in getting word to the governor. Koch gave the neighbor a written outline, including an assertion that the "culture of fear and corruption are smothering morale in our organization" -- a claim that would surface again in findings years later in the Sept. 4 National Guard Bureau report.

"The outline was meant to spark discussion, which I was freely and willingly ready to enter," the document quotes Koch as saying. "Nothing came of the outline."

'Intolerable conditions and declining morale'

On Nov. 18, 2010, Koch and two other chaplains, Ted McGovern and Matt Friese, got a 7:30 a.m. telephone appointment with the governor. They made the conference call from Friese's office at Anchorage Grace Church, where one of Parnell's children had attended classes. They spoke for 20 minutes about sexual assaults, thefts, lack of trust, misuse of government resources and money in the guard.

In his notes from the meeting, Koch said he didn't detect a lot of interest from the other end of the phone line.

"It did not seem that he or his staff desired to drill very deeply into the problems of an organization that reaches into the entire landscape of the Alaska population," Koch said.

On Dec. 3, 2010, the three chaplains were back on the phone with Parnell from Anchorage Grace Church again, this time with three other officers: Col. Robert Doehl of the Air Guard and two lieutenant colonels who were unnamed in the documents. They talked about a range of problems, from sexual assaults to cronyism, cover-ups, unsafe operations and reprisals taken against officers who spoke out.

Doehl followed up with a seven-page letter to Parnell filled with details and allegations about safety shortcuts that resulted in loss of aircraft, sexual violence and retaliation against whistleblowers. He told Parnell that Katkus not only failed to stop misconduct, he covered it up. (Doehl was eventually forced from the guard and went to work as an aide to U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.)

Koch also wrote a follow-up letter, dated Dec. 9, 2010, in which he appealed to Parnell's religious beliefs. "Indeed, all of your chaplains -- nine in total with 5 on the Army side and 4 on the Air side -- are happy to know we have a man of faith serving as our Commander in Chief," Koch wrote. "Every month all our chaplains literally see hundreds of our Service Members and their families concerning a wide variety of personal issues and troubles. Among these issues lately are the plethora of complaints over the moral and ethical behaviors of our senior leadership, which has reached such a crescendo that we felt compelled over the past twelve months to try and address it with you after our pleas were ignored or rebuffed by our leaders."

On Dec. 29, 2010, Parnell heard from another complainant: retired Alaska Air Guard Brig. Gen. Gene Ramsey. Writing from his retirement home in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, he warned Parnell of "intolerable conditions and declining morale" in the Air Guard, citing poor leadership.

The documentation showed the complaints and whistleblowing continued for the next three years.

In an interview with the Alaska Public Radio Network on April 29, Parnell acknowledged hearing the complaints, but said they were narrowly focused on sexual misconduct.

"So, four years ago I was told there is a problem with sexual assault in the guard. That is the sum and substance of what I was given," he said.

In that interview, and in an interview this week with Alaska Dispatch News, Parnell said he followed up every specific allegation of sexual assault to ensure that it was investigated by Alaska State Troopers or local police, as the law requires. His point of contact in the guard was Katkus -- the same person that most whistleblowers were complaining about.

"When I learned of the sexual assaults and went to Gen. Katkus, for example, and asked about each of the fact patterns and was told by him how each case was handled -- this one went to law enforcement -- that element was done," Parnell said this week. He said he also ensured that victims had a "safe reporting process" inside the guard.

Dyson to Parnell: 'These guys are believable'

But the Guard Bureau investigation found the Alaska guard's sexual assault reporting process was run by an unsupervised contractor through 2011 who failed to maintain and track records and finish cases.

"As a result, victims and leaders were not properly informed regarding the status of their cases, victims were not offered treatment services, and victim information was not adequately treated in a confidential manner required by (Defense Department) policy," the report said. Even when the Alaska guard hired a capable administrator in 2012, it failed to let the ranks know how the environment had changed, leading to continued mistrust of the system, the report said.

Unsatisfied with how Parnell and his staff was responding, two of the chaplains approached Bill Walker around October 2013. Walker, already an announced independent Republican candidate for governor, said he wanted to help the chaplains, but didn't want their concerns dismissed as politics -- which he feared would happen if he were directly involved.

"It was a pretty horrific story to listen to," Walker said in a recent interview. "I said you might want to consider going public in some fashion in the media, but I didn't want to minimize in any way the seriousness of what was happening by making it look like it was just political fodder of some sort."

Walker, through an acquaintance in Fairbanks, got the chaplains in touch with a reporter, and the first story got out later that month. But the guard leadership remained unchanged until the final pivotal role played by retiring state Sen. Fred Dyson, an Eagle River Republican, who also got involved after conversations with the chaplains, one of whom he knew.

"The two of them and the investigator sat in my living room and we talked about this, just a year ago," Dyson said in an interview. "They were guarded, but I said, have you got this message to the governor? And they said, 'Yes.' I found out it had been nearly two years (before)."

Dyson, a friend of Parnell's parents, thought he could help.

"I three times went to Sean and said, 'You need to get on top of this and do something,' and his response was, 'I've done everything asked of me and every charge that has been brought has been referred to law enforcement. What more should I do?' I said, 'You need to be in charge of this and there's more stuff, including an atmosphere that allows this stuff to go forward.'"

Dyson's first meeting with Parnell was in early fall 2013. After an October story about the guard in the Anchorage Daily News, Dyson met with Parnell again. He asked for a third meeting on Feb. 26, two days after another Anchorage Daily News story that said a dozen members of the Alaska guard were facing charges of sexual misconduct.

In the third meeting, Dyson recalled, he told Parnell, "These guys are believable. They're not the kind of guys that fabricate this stuff, in fact they bring it forward with sadness."

Parnell again said he'd look into it, Dyson said.

"I said, 'Sean, you don't believe me. Here's Jane's phone number.'"

Jane was Lt. Col. Jane Wawersik, an executive officer in the guard who was investigating sexual misconduct. She was the third person in Dyson's living room in his first meeting with the chaplains in 2013.

In the interview, Parnell said he called Wawersik the next day and had a long conversation with her.

"Within 24 hours of her communicating one or two fact patterns to me that I had not heard before, I called the National Guard Bureau, called them in, and you can believe that the leadership of the Alaska National Guard knew they were coming," Parnell said.

'It appears we were likely deceived'

In hindsight, Parnell said, he should've acted sooner, but believed he was being reasonable "under the circumstances."

"You check the traplines over there, you do what you think is reasonable at the time, and it turns out that we were wrong, and I was wrong to trust what I was hearing, " Parnell said.

He said he wasn't distracted by other issues -- particularly oil tax cuts, which dominated his administration's efforts through 2013, especially in the Legislature. Sens. Begich and Lisa Murkowski also didn't get to the bottom of the guard scandal during that time, he noted.

"No, there were no distractions. There were no substantiated allegations that I did not follow up on," Parnell said. "Everything that I followed up on appeared to be reasonably complete in terms of the leadership's actions. Sen. Begich found the same thing, Sen. Murkowski found the same thing in 2013. It appears we were likely deceived, but I'm thankful we have a roadmap forward."

By bringing in Alaska's senators, Parnell said, he wasn't trying to shift blame to them. "I'm the commander in chief, the buck stops with me, I get that, that's why I'm making these changes, that's why I'm looking for a new adjutant general, that's why the National Guard Bureau is even in here right now," he said.

Parnell urged Alaskans to look forward, especially now that the assistant leader of the Connecticut National Guard, Brig. Gen. Jon Mott, has agreed to help Alaska implement the recommendations of the Guard Bureau.

"We are hearing some very good things out of our guard members about what the National Guard Bureau is doing in there with Gen. Mott and his team," Parnell said.

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