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Letters from a lawmaker, and the precarious power of elected officials as private citizens

  • Author: Jill Burke
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 25, 2016
  • Published August 25, 2016

Alaska, wake up.

That an individual you elected to make laws and lead the state would defend the character of a convicted child sex offender and a woman who enabled another one is jaw-dropping. It's offensive. And yet, you are missing the point.

That sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach at Rep. Cathy Munoz's choice to write letters to judges urging leniency for Thomas Jack Jr. and, in a separate case, Mary Chessica Hauge, is apt revulsion.

Juneau Empire reporter Paula Ann Solis broke the story on Sunday.

Jack, 40, was convicted of sexually abusing a girl in his care. Facing a possible 40-year sentence, he has asked a three-judge panel to review his case.

Hauge was convicted of eight counts of child endangerment for allowing her husband, a convicted sex offender, access to girls he raped and used to make pornography. She was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

As distasteful as we may find Munoz's support for these individuals, it's her call. She gets to decide who she stands up for and when, just as any of the rest of us do. But can an Alaska lawmaker ever really be a regular citizen, free from their stature as an elected official? It's tricky territory.

When they're not holding hearings, crafting new laws or analyzing budgets and policy, our legislators are busy at regular year-round jobs. With a citizen Legislature called to duty for a 90-day regular session, we have entrusted our state to everyday people we can only hope relate to our everyday struggles and share our vision for the future.

Our representatives get to have private lives and private friendships, albeit with more scrutiny as a result of their decision to serve as elected officials. Ideally, we would embrace a lawmaker who stands with the outcasts, the marginalized, the disempowered, someone who makes difficult choices, criticism be damned.

But we want their personal decisions to reflect the same sound judgment we expect in their role as state leaders. Unpopular actions should be well-reasoned and defensible, and reflect a robust grasp on all that is at stake.

There are many reasons why Munoz's letters strike at the core of our sensibilities.

First, we don't like tangled webs. We like villains, victims and heroes. Munoz's support for Jack and Hague shatters the myth and reminds us real life is messy.

Next, we don't want to believe that we've been fooled, that people we think highly of are capable of despicable acts. It's easier to make sense of sexual assault if we allow doubt to creep in. Maybe they didn't do it. Maybe they didn't know. Maybe someone lied.

Finally, we don't like powerful people to improperly wield their influence. Intentional or accidental, the end result is the same.

It's not unlike when someone harms a child. The hurt is not undone by explanations, apologies or denials.

Munoz is not the first elected official to offer up a character reference for a child sex abuser.

Before there was a Cathy Munoz, there was Dan Coffey.

In 2005 Coffey, then an Anchorage Assembly member, swooped in with three pages of accolades for his drug-addled client, Josef "Joe Millionaire" Boehm, a wealthy businessman convicted in federal court of conspiring to commit child prostitution and supplying drugs to minors. Coffey pushed the court to sentence Boehm with a light hand.

In each case, Coffey and Munoz couldn't bring themselves in their letters to use the words "child rape" or "sexual abuse."

Coffey portrayed Boehm as a victim to "vultures" who preyed on the businessman with "drugs" and "other inducements." In other words, crack cocaine and sex with minors. As Coffey advocated for a light sentence, he also touted Boehm's history as a successful job creator within the community.

In her May 2016 letter in support of Jack, who became a convicted sex offender in 2010, Munoz starts by saying she was making a "personal statement" on behalf of Jack, a longtime family friend. No mention is made of his victim.

Munoz, like many other leaders and people of influence with ties to Hoonah, had been fretting over the "cold reality" that Jack may never see freedom again.

"He is a hard-working and honest person. He is not a violent person, and I believe he would respond well to rehabilitation," Munoz wrote.

But then, the seemingly personal letter takes a not-so-personal tone: "Thank you for taking the time to read my comments. Thank you, too, for your service to the State of Alaska."

This closing sentiment is an odd way to end a personal letter. "Thank you for your service to the state" is a well-worn phrase in the Legislature, offered to praise those giving testimony or to the recipients of honorable resolutions.

One month later, Munoz wrote a similar letter for a different defendant in a separate case.

This time, it arrived to the court on legislative letterhead.

Munoz penned the June 2016 letter in support of a fellow church member, and signed off as Cathy Munoz, Representative-District 34.

"Please accept my compassionate support for Chessica Hauge as she moves forward in her life under difficult circumstances," Munoz wrote, referencing how impressed she was with Hauge's "strong Christian faith."

Those "difficult circumstances" Munoz refers to are the consequences of knowingly leaving children you're responsible for in the hands of a sexual predator who took advantage of the opportunity to rape and exploit them.

Whether by oversight or by design, Munoz used her office to boost her credibility as a character witness on behalf of two people accused and convicted of heinous crimes against children.

A decision on whether Munoz did or did not technically violate any explicit ethics rules is moot. She was wrong to use her the influence of her office, in one case subtle, the other overt, and that is something entirely different than earnestly coming to the aid of a friend or following one's conscience.

As the Empire notes, Jack and many community members from Hoonah maintain his innocence, despite the trial and convictions. If Munoz, like them, believes there was a miscarriage of justice, she should have said so. She did not.

She did not raise the issue of innocence or guilt. She did not speak directly to the crimes for which Jack was convicted.

The closest she came to this was to suggest that a more lenient sentence promoting rehabilitation, instead of a life of confinement, would better reflect the state's contemporary views on crime and punishment.

The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge to the court an awareness that the Jack and Hauge cases involve child sexual abuse, and to fail to acknowledge the distress and lifelong impacts to all involved, also feeds the discontent over Munoz's choices.

Rightly, we are left with a sense of disgust.

It's a gut instinct that demands us to stop bumbling about the topic of sexual assault with euphemisms, and to cease acting as apologists for otherwise good people who do bad things.

Businessmen, community providers, churchgoers — none are above the law and no level of community ties or investment should offset the harm abusers cause. Child predators rely on trust, on being sneaky and on keeping secrets. They choose easy targets, victims they hope no one will believe, or on whom they can place blame. Teenage partiers. A troubled child.

A true commitment to protecting children and lowering the frequency of sexual assault demands we embrace the complexities of the problem and the people it afflicts, those it wounds and those who did the wounding.

A "lock them up and throw away the key" approach to the punishment of perpetrators won't work. Nor will blindly assuming that after the embarrassment of a trial and the ordeal of jail time, sexual offenders will magically change their ways.

To make the shift from someone who harms children to someone who controls themselves and makes better decisions takes rigorous intervention. The Alaska Department of Corrections itself told the Legislature so earlier this year.

"Intensity of treatment and length of supervision are the key factors associated with the successful management of sex offenders," said the five-page DOC report offered to the Legislature this spring, which noted two-thirds of sex offenses in the state involve crimes against children.

While in custody and after release, offenders may receive years' worth of therapy, coupled with heightened monitoring by their parole officers and community members trained to be a "safety net" — people within the offender's circle trained to recognize "high-risk behaviors and warning signs of relapse."

Hiland Mountain's female sex offender program takes from 18 to 24 months to complete. Juneau's Lemon Creek Correction Center, where Jack is housed, has a sexual offender management program that takes two to three years to complete. Waitlists for such treatments are long.

On Wednesday, citing policy, DOC would not say whether Jack and Hauge had received or would undergo treatment.

Alaska, wake up.

When used to shield assailants, power and powerful connections are in the long run nothing more than snake oil, flashy balms that falsely ameliorate wrongdoing.

To laud the good and ignore the bad perpetuates a permissiveness regarding sexual assault that should make us all feel ill; it minimizes the violence and harm, disempowers and silences victims.

Child sexual abusers are counting on you to look the other way.

Don't.

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