When U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller set out in 2008 to overthrow the head of the Alaska Republican Party, the mission, to him, became far more dangerous than anyone might have imagined, according to his former co-workers at the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Politically speaking, working to overthrow the guy at the top was indeed a gutsy move. But Miller perceived risks greater than to just his reputation. He feared for his own life, his former co-workers said in interviews with Alaska Dispatch.
E-mails and other documents released Tuesday under court order relating to Miller's time as a part-time borough attorney allude to some of the Gulf War veteran's fears, including his belief that someone might hack into the borough's computer system.
It was around this same time -- March 2008 -- that Miller was caught using three of his co-workers' computers to pad a political poll on his personal website. After the incident, Miller, who at first lied about the computer usage, was placed on leave for about two weeks, followed by a three-day suspension without pay and six months probation.
For co-workers who had just days earlier heard Miller going on about personal threats and computer schemes, the timing of Miller's misuse of their computers was unsettling, spawning one more twist in a situation that seemed to grow stranger by the day.
Later that same week in 2008, hundreds of miles south in Anchorage, other people would make similar remarks about Miller's presence at the statewide Republican convention -- the very place where the political aspirant hoped Randy Ruedrich, the party's chairman, would be ousted. According to numerous sources, Miller arrived at the convention with bodyguards similar to those he had on hand at a town hall meeting at Central Middle School on Oct 17, where they handcuffed the editor of the Alaska Dispatch.
But Miller's employee files from the borough and the first-hand accounts by convention-goers tell only part of the story of Miller's quest to unseat Ruedrich.
In the shadow of the public power struggle -- the old guard versus the new Palin-led faction in the Alaska Republican Party -- the effort was taking a noticeable toll on Miller, who seemed unusually stressed and genuinely worried about his personal safety.
One of Miller's supervisors, borough attorney Rene Broker, wrote in a memo to Miller following the computer incident, "It has been apparent in the last several months that you are under significant stress and it has affected your judgment as evidenced by your actions on Mar. 12, 2008."
In interviews Friday with Alaska Dispatch, Miller's former co-workers in the Fairbanks borough's legal department said the Senate candidate was paranoid, acting strangely in the days leading up to the computer polling incident and the state GOP convention in spring 2008, including telling them about plots against his life, computer hijacking, a bug in his office, and requesting that the mayor hire a security detail to protect Miller.
Miller's campaign did not respond to a request, which included a brief summary of this story, for comment.
Former co-workers say Miller's fears were 'bizarre'
Although Miller's former co-workers declined to be identified, they collectively offered a look back at the things Miller was saying and doing in spring 2008 -- actions they summed up as "bizarre."
Based on their accounts, this political episode in Miller's life appears to derive more from an espionage thriller than a political playbook. What follows is Miller's co-workers' recollection of his strange and embroiled political mission and how it crossed over into their government workplace.
Days before he was caught using the borough computers for the poll, Miller had spoken openly with members of the borough office about a potential threat coming his way. The Alaska Republican Party was out to get him, Miller told them, and he warned them to be careful about what they did on their computers. Miller claimed a public records request was in the works aimed at scrutinizing employees' computer use, adding that, if granted, he feared it might reveal child pornography on his computer. If any inappropriate material was found on his computer, Miller told them, they needed to know it would be the result of a sophisticated setup -- someone hacking the Fairbanks North Star Borough's computer system and planting inappropriate material on his computer.
It was just a few days later that his colleagues discovered something was amiss with their computers, which upset and unnerved them given the timing to Miller's earlier warnings. Miller had been on their computers during lunch hour to vote in a political poll hosted on his own personal website. When they confronted Miller about it, he told one of his supervisor's, Jill Dolan, "not to worry about it (and) that he was not on a bad site," according to a written statement Dolan provided during the borough's subsequent internal investigation.
Yet, there is no evidence that the prospect of illicit materials existed anywhere but in Miller's fears.
In the hundreds of pages of public records produced by the borough regarding Miller's employment, there is nothing to suggest that the borough ever had concerns about child pornography or other inappropriate material being found on his computer.
Only when he got caught falsely inflating his own political poll did he face sanctions related to computer use. In the ensuing disciplinary letter from his supervisor, Rene Broker, she made it a point to note that the borough believed it was an isolated incident.
GOP out to get Miller?
But Joe Miller's wariness went far beyond the alleged computer plot. He was also convinced his office was bugged, the borough employees told Alaska Dispatch.
And he believed there was a murder plot under way to kill him and then-Gov. Sarah Palin, who at the time also was trying to persuade her fellow Republicans to dump Randy Ruedrich as the party chairman. Miller feared someone might tamper with his tires, causing him to have an accident as he drove to Anchorage, the borough employees recalled.
With his worries mounting, Miller wanted Jim Whitaker, then the mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, to provide a security staff for him, his former co-workers said. Miller wanted doors locked and security cameras mounted in the borough's legal offices (The New York Times has reported that Miller has security cameras at his home). And he wanted an escape route -- a second exit in case the main one was somehow blocked or unsafe.
"He was just very paranoid about the whole thing," one employee said.
Miller believed the people out to get him included Ruedrich and former Gov. Frank Murkowski, the father of Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- one of Miller's opponents in the Senate race -- and the man who appointed her to the job in 2002.
Miller told one of his co-workers that Frank Murkowski and Ruedrich were men who "had the power and money to pull something off," the borough employee said Friday.
At least three of Miller's colleagues believed his fears were genuine, but they had no way to know if they were credible. One borough employee wasn't sure how to react. Should they call the FBI? It was hard to gauge the seriousness of it all, though they felt Miller believed it was serious, and they did take his concerns to the mayor's office.
A failed coup
By Saturday, March 15, 2008, Miller's plot to oust Ruedrich was about to collapse. Although Miller hoped to hijack the party's convention agenda and successfully get the body to take a no-confidence vote on Ruedrich, the seasoned GOP chairman out maneuvered Miller and Palin and prevented the vote from coming up.
In a commentary in the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Republican Paulette Simpson described the failed overthrow as an "unsuccessful, banana republic-like coup."
Miller's desire to wrest control from Ruedrich and redefine the Alaska Republican Party as unfailingly loyal to Palin was no secret. In media interviews at the time, Miller spoke openly of his desire to "clean up government" and ensure "the public understands that the Republican Party is a party of ethics."
In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News one week before the failed takeover, Miller was quoted as saying, "The public needs to be assured that this is not the party of corruption and influence but the party of limited government, of Lincoln, of state's rights."
Still, conventioneers, including Simpson, couldn't help but note the unusual companions Miller had brought with him to the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, where the meeting was held in 2008. She wrote in the Daily News:
Toward the end of the convention when it was apparent his fireworks had fizzled, in what can only be described as paranoid and bizarre, a security detail -- yes, pretend Secret Service suits with Aviator glasses and earpieces -- showed up to flank and apparently protect the silly, self-important Joe from a bunch of mostly middle-age Republican delegates who had voted against him and were now genuinely embarrassed for him.
Republican Andree McLeod -- a Palin critic -- also noticed Miller's not-so subtle security detail: three men and a woman, each equipped with walkie talkies and ear pieces. They were friendly enough, she recalls, and although it was obvious they were shadowing Miller, they would only say they were "on a security job."
McLeod doesn't recall the name of the security guard she spoke with at the time, but recalls he was proud of his business, which he identified as Drop Zone -- the same company that
Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger after the Oct. 17 campaign town hall meeting at an Anchorage public school.
When Miller left the convention hall and headed to the hotel's downstairs for a news interview, the guards followed and stood by at the door, McLeod recalled. When Miller went upstairs to another floor in the hotel, they stuck close and buzzed around him.
A short time later, McLeod noticed them guarding an elevator door, with one guard posted in front of the door and others on either side. When the door opened, out came Miller and the four security guards moved into a diamond formation around him -- one in front, one behind him and one on each side -- and they hustled Miller in a military-style march to a waiting SUV outside the Hotel Captain Cook. Once Miller and his entourage -- which included Palin aide Ivy Fry, according to McLeod, were safely on their way -- the guards cleared out.
"It was the most surreal thing I have ever seen," McLeod said.
Miller quit the Alaska GOP and his regional chairmanship the following Monday -- the same week he was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into his misuse of borough computers.
Ruedrich: We don't threaten people'
Flash forward more than two years later and now one of Miller's would-be assassins is his staunch supporter -- Randy Ruedrich, who remains the Alaska GOP's chairman.
On Friday, Ruedrich denounced talk of any alleged threats to Miller in 2008 as so ridiculous that the topic wasn't worthy of discussion.
"We don't threaten people," he said. "We just make sure they have the opportunity to participate."
"This conversation really doesn't need to exist," added Ruedrich, hanging up the phone.
In the weeks and months following the failed political ploy and his ethics lapse at the borough, Miller kept to himself more than usual, his co-workers said. With the intensity of the fight behind him, there was no more talk of death threats or people out to get him.
In the seven years that Miller worked at the Fairbanks North Star Borough, there had been other times when he expressed a heightened level of anxiousness about his personal safety, but the scenarios seemed reasonable, his co-workers said. For example, in one instance the potential threat was a man distraught over a family situation that Miller had become involved in through his private law practice.
Miller's co-workers were also aware that Miller had security cameras at his house, but it was their understanding they were standard-issue for U.S. District Court magistrate judges, and that Miller had retained the equipment after resigning that post to run for local office in 2004.
Despite the odd events leading up to the March 2008 GOP convention, the quality of Miller's legal work for the borough was largely unaffected.
"The job he did here was at a very high level and he did very good work," said Rene Broker, one of Miller's former bosses, in an interview earlier this week.
She also came to his defense regarding speculation that the medical issue for which Miller was seeking treatment in August and September 2009 -- revealed in records released under court order this week -- just as he was resigning from his borough job, had something to do with his mental health. She called the claims -- which she has seen in the comments sections of recent news reports on Miller's time at the borough -- "totally unfair."
"That's wrong. That is not the case," she said. "This concept is unfair that he has some kind of service-related mental issue. People are just making that up."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.