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Military and Veterans Affairs official resigns at Parnell's request

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 25, 2014

McHugh Pierre, civilian deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, has resigned at the request of Gov. Sean Parnell, according to a spokesperson for the governor.

"The Office of the Governor requested his resignation this week," Parnell spokesperson Sharon Leighow said in an email Thursday evening.

Pierre's departure comes as his close affiliation with Alaska National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus is under intensified scrutiny. Katkus' was the first head to roll in the wake of Parnell's efforts to clean up a laundry list of command failures noted by outside investigators called in by Parnell to the get to the bottom of low morale, distrust and real and perceived wrongs within the Guard, including the alleged mishandling of sexual assaults and a feeling that assailants were protected instead of being dealt with.

Katkus had a dual role as the top commissioned officer of the National Guard, its adjutant general, and was also Pierre's boss as commissioner of the Department of Military & Veterans Affairs. Parnell himself is the formal head of the National Guard, its civilian commander in chief.

"Overall, the survey reveals a perception of lack of leadership integrity within all levels of command," the investigators' report noted.

The report was made public Sept. 4, after which Parnell requested and received Katkus' resignation. Parnell, who is currently seeking re-election, met Wednesday with Brig. Gen. Jon K. Mott, who has been named to lead a team that will implement recommendations outlined in the report.

In a resignation letter provided by Leighow, Pierre listed the "tremendous accomplishments" of his five-year tenure at the department but did not mention the recent revelations of problems within the Guard.

"It is time for me to take on new challenges and new adventures in the private sector," he wrote. In the letter, Pierre said his resignation would be effective Oct. 2; however, Leighow clarified Friday that his last day would be Sept. 26.

Citing Pierre's resignation as a personnel matter, the governor's office refused to elaborate on why Pierre, a Colony High School and UAA grad who attended Harvard and got his start in state government working for Gov. Frank Murkowski, was asked to leave. Pierre himself did not return a call Tuesday night for comment.

Documents obtained by Alaska Dispatch News show that Pierre inserted himself into one of the inquiries into the alleged sexual misconduct of a married recruiter, an incident of which Parnell's office was aware.

The recruiter, a high school classmate of Pierre's from the late 1990s, was also accused of sexual harassment, of mistreating junior enlisted soldiers, of possessing steroids and committing assault. In June 2014, Cindy Sims, a senior staffer and close aide to the governor, received an email detailing the situation with this and dozens of other soldiers.

The document notes that this soldier, whose name has been withheld since no criminal charges were ever filed, was recommended for removal from his full-time position and to be separated from the service with "other than honorable discharge." Nothing came of it, apparently, after Pierre gave input to Katkus and the assistant adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Leon Bridges.

After Pierre came forward, Bridges took over the case. He was to impose an action of General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand and a rank reduction of one grade, but the process -- convening a board to review the discipline recommendations and then take action -- has not moved forward.

'High level of misconduct'

Recruiting and retention was a distinct problem area cited by the National Guard Bureau's investigative team. In its report, it "noted a high level of misconduct occurring within the AKNG Recruiting and Retention Command. Several command directed investigations initiated in 2012 found that, during the time period of 2008-09, several noncommissioned officers within this command were engaged in misuse of government vehicles, fraud, adultery, inappropriate relationships and sexual assault. Several of these cases are pending administrative action."

Investigators also found an odd command arrangement in recruiting and retention. Katkus had restructured things so that the department, led by his friend and neighbor, reported directly to him.

Pierre had also inserted himself into the efforts of whistle-blowers who were working to alert Parnell to serious concerns about how sexual assault cases were being managed.

Last year, two chaplains -- Lt. Col. Rich Koch and Lt. Col. Ted McGovern -- brought forward concerns in the hope someone would take action. In December 2013, after it had become apparent they had spoken with lawmakers, Pierre called the chaplains into his office, according to news reports earlier this year. They were asked to sign a letter saying they'd stop talking to legislators.

Through an attorney, the chaplains have said they declined to sign the letter. In recent months, they have been less open with what they know and more cautious in their approach.

In an interview earlier this week, state Sen. Fred Dyson told Alaska Dispatch News that Pierre and Katkus had around the same time given him a "passionate explanation" of how seriously they were looking into the chaplains' concerns. "They were very vocal and aggressive in defending the Guard and their efforts on this -- very aggressive. And sounded good," he said.

But even as they defended their actions and the seriousness with which Katkus and Pierre were handling things, Dyson said, he suspected they were also "obfuscating at best." Dyson had gotten word of a "damning" report about misconduct involving recruiters and personnel at missile sites, but when he asked for help getting ahold of it, he said, Katkus and Pierre told him they didn't know exactly what he was referring to and offered no help tracking it down.

Dyson was also troubled by the distrust that high-ranking officials, including Katkus and Pierre, had for the chaplains' words. "They certainly hinted to me that there was a real problem with the professionalism and a lack of credibility," Dyson said.

Pierre entered public service in 2004, when he took a communications position serving then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. In 2008, he also served as a spokesperson for the Alaska Republican Party.

According to his online state biography, Pierre, a lifelong Alaskan, was "raised with a unique respect for the military." Both of his grandfathers had long military careers, and his appointment to the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs has allowed him to give back "by supporting their missions in the state and advocating their needs before the Alaska State Legislature."

Correction: This story has been updated with a clarification from the governor's office about Pierre's last day of work.

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