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State senator wants hearing on National Guard problems

One of the Alaska Senate's leaders, Anchorage Republican Lesil McGuire, says the Legislature has a role to play in repairing the Alaska National Guard.

"You can expect to hear more from the Senate," McGuire said in a phone interview this week. "I am ultimately going to hold hearings and I am going to call for a special investigator."

But there are signs she may get pushback from within the Senate.

"I don't know anything the Legislature can do right now other than muddy the water," Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said in an interview.

It doesn't make sense to hold hearings now, given the upcoming November election, he said. Yet even looking past the election, he said he's not convinced legislative hearings are the best approach.

McGuire's desire to get to the bottom of what went wrong is the latest call for action on repairing the fractured morale and trust within the guard, an issue that has become highly politicized. Gov. Sean Parnell, commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard, is running for re-election. Seizing on the leadership failings found within the guard, the Alaska Democratic Party and other critics have placed blame for the mess squarely on Parnell.

McGuire, vice chair of the Judiciary Committee and chair of the Rules Committee, and Huggins, a former Army ranger who once served as an Army advisor to the Alaska National Guard, see different paths forward.

McGuire wants the Legislature involved and said she'll advocate for funding within the Department of Law to pay for special investigators and other resources needed to do a thorough inquiry.

"You hope these things don't happen. It's embarrassing when they do. It's awful when they do. But when they are uncovered and you recognize that you have a serious morale issue, that you have an issue that appears to have risen to the level of potential prosecution in one of our state entities, you have to act quickly," she said.

Given what is now known about sexual misconduct, favoritism, harassment, discrimination and other misconduct within the guard, based on the findings of a federal investigation, "it is imperative that we in the state Senate and in the state Legislature take a look at what has happened," McGuire said.

Huggins prefers a more peripheral approach. He'd like to talk with Brig. Gen. Jon Mott, who is in Alaska on loan from Connecticut to lead the guard's reform team. But he'd prefer it to be more of a private briefing than a public event. Protocols and procedures are in place to deal with the issues that have come up, and it's wiser to let the system play out than it is to intervene, he said.

Huggins still believes the adjutant general ousted in the wake of the scandal, Thomas Katkus, is a "good man," although Huggins acknowledged he didn't know much about what Katkus may or may not have had to do with the problems plaguing the guard. Huggins also thinks the bad actors – the people committing crimes or making life intolerable for other guard members – are a "super minority."

Huggins also believes the responsibility for keeping guard members safe falls beyond the guard itself. Civilian law enforcement, including Anchorage police and Alaska State Troopers, need to do their part, he said. Additionally, when crimes are committed involving guard members, the guard should be informed, he said.

Reflecting on the Legislature's potential role, Huggins said he is mindful of already completed investigations. Alaska's U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, called for separate inquiries. Parnell chief of staff Mike Nizich conducted one. And most recently, the federal National Guard Bureau came in, prompting Parnell to announce significant reforms and continued investigations. There's not much room for the Legislature to add to what's already been gathered or put into motion, he said.

"None of us want to be a victim of knee-jerking because there's a psychology of 'Oh my goodness, what's going on in the guard,'" Huggins said.

Why wasn't Legislature notified?

In the weeks since the investigative report detailed a list of failures within the guard, McGuire has wondered why no one reached out to her or the Legislature for help.

"It's unfortunate that the Senate leadership didn't know during the session in time to be able to pull things together and to try to get to the bottom of this. I cannot believe that this has been going on for four years. It's just unbelievable to me," she said.

She didn't realize things were as bad as they were until last spring, when Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, started coming around and letting people know that the situation was serious and that something needed to be done. By then guard chaplains had already approached Dyson -- a member of the Judiciary and Armed Services committees -- as well as the governor, and news stories had run about victims who felt let down and the numerous sexual misconduct investigations that were underway.

And, Dyson and Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, had even had a face-to-face with Katkus, called by Dyson to answer to the growing concerns. "I was assured that they (the National Guard) were responding to what needed to be done," Fairclough said in an interview earlier this week.

Yet as far back as 2011, at least one guard member says, he called upon a specific legislator to take action.

'An evil is coming'

In fall 2011, Rick Cavens, a chaplain with the Alaska Air National Guard, said he reached out to Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, for help. The two crossed paths at a stand-down event for troubled vets in Anchorage.

Cavens thought Saddler, who sits as co-chair of the Joint Armed Services Committee and serves on the House Special Committee on Military and Veterans' Affairs and is also on the budget subcommittee for the Department of Military & Veteran Affairs, might be able to do something.

Cavens had urged Saddler to hold exit interviews with outgoing commanders to get a sense of the culture within the guard and to hear from sources other than Katkus about what was going on.

Things had gotten so bad that Cavens and other chaplains, who prayed weekly for the guard and the state's leadership, said they often felt "like an evil is coming in upon us."

That "evil," as Cavens describes it, was the way people were treated, the disrespect and unfairness that was affecting lives and careers, he said.

People that were harsh and manipulative were being put into positions of power and control, Cavens said. If you did what Katkus wanted, you were rewarded. If you didn't, you were punished, he said.

He said he'd had a long conversation with Saddler at the stand-down event. Saddler promised to look into it but "did nothing," Cavens said.

Saddler said he doesn't recall the conversation.

"I didn't meet with any chaplains. Not on this issue. I may know a chaplain socially," said Saddler, who includes Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson among his constituency.

"In the past, I've gone to an awful lot of memorial ceremonies and so forth on base. I may have been at services where Cavens was, but no, we didn't speak about this, the National Guard issues that are in the press so much these days," Saddler said.

What Saddler does remember are "some rumblings" about morale problems around the time Kulis Air Force base was closed and moved to JBER. But he chalked it up to the move and competition for high command jobs. "I figured those people were sorry they didn't get the promotion they had hoped for," Saddler said.

He'd also heard a conspiracy theory about allegations of murder, rape, drug use, drug smuggling and other corruption, which he didn't find credible. Sadler said he was assured by Katkus that everything was under control and that investigations were ongoing.

"Maybe I'm culpable for not challenging him (Katkus) more," Saddler said. "But my duties are not as investigator. I don't have subpoena power, and frankly the chain of command is military, and on the civilian side it's the governor -- he's the commander," Saddler said.

‘Hostile’ and ‘Toxic'

Saddler's co-chair on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said he gets many letters, but none have stood out as being related directly to the National Guard scandal or sexual assault, or directly asking him personally to get involved.

As a former special assistant to Parnell, and the governor's senior adviser for military affairs, Kelly could have been uniquely situated to catch wind of the growing problems within the guard, but he says he was mostly out of the loop. He worked for the governor from 2009 to 2011.

Kelly said he was "generally aware" of the problems in the guard but doesn't recall any direct conversations about it with the governor or in staff meetings. Occasionally, he would get an update from Gen. Katkus, he said.

He vaguely recalled an internal investigation being started, he thought by the governor's chief of staff, Nizich. Bimonthly meetings were held, with different department heads participating. And again, Katkus would from time to time update everyone on investigations he was going to do related to sexual harassment and sexual assault.

"'Hostile' and 'toxic' were words that were coming up," Kelly said.

Kelly said he also saw some correspondence on the same topic but doesn't recall who it was from. At no time did anyone approach him directly, the way that the chaplains had reached out to other people, he said.

"I am just surprised that this is something that was happening in 2011 and here it comes up again. I would have thought it would have been dealt with by now," he said.

"There has to be a credible investigation. If that doesn't happen the Legislature will have to step in and flex some muscle," he said.

'An empty room'

In pursuing hearings, McGuire said she'd like to hear from the people who've tried to tell their stories over the years -- chaplains, victims, advocates, anyone with knowledge about what went wrong and how it can be made better. Her intent isn't for a tense round of talks with people forced to be there by subpoena, she said. Instead, she characterized it as more of a fact-finding and fix-it mission.

It may not be as easy as she's hoping to get people to speak up.

Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, a member of the joint Armed Services Committee and the Military and Veterans Affairs finance subcommittee, also doesn't remember anyone reaching out to him regarding the situation in the guard.

After the first news story ran in October 2013, Wielechowski said, his office tried to get in touch with the chaplains and others mentioned in the story. But no one would talk. He said word got back to him that people were worried about retaliation and that, in fact, some had been specifically told not to talk to him or to Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage.

A year later, Wielechowski said it doesn't appear much has changed. This week he spoke with guard members about the possibility of holding hearings. He wanted to know whether, if hearings were held, people would testify.

"They are still hesitant," Wielechowski said. "People are still concerned about retaliation."

"I was going to have a hearing this week, but with no subpoena powers to compel leadership to talk and members still afraid to talk, it would have unfortunately been an empty room," he said.

Wielechowski and McGuire said the Legislature should have had hearings last year, if not earlier. "The chairmen of the committees could have just dragged people in and asked what's going on," he said.

Huggins said he's worried about tainting the reputation of the entire Alaska guard when it may be that only a few people are responsible for the majority of the problems. Since the scandal broke, only a few people have sought his advice, and only one was relevant to the current situation, he said. A member of guard leadership had contacted him, concerned about his character being defamed, Huggins said.

"It's kind of like the old skunk. If you're standing in the room you might get a little odor on you," Huggins said.

McGuire said the state owes it to guard members to do better.

"To think that on top of the sacrifice that they are making, being away from their professions and their family, that they've been subjected to a work environment that is hostile and degrading is very upsetting," McGuire said.

"When there are that many allegations that there is something afoot, you simply have to grab it, grab ahold of the mess, whatever it is, and get to the bottom of it. It is a dirty, messy job sometimes but that is what's required when you are asked to be a state leader," she said.