Alaska lawmaker's aide remained on state payroll after assault charge

JUNEAU -- A highly paid aide to one of the Senate's Republican leaders remained on the Legislature's payroll this year despite failing to show up for work for most of the legislative session, taking a long leave of absence after her arrest on a domestic violence charge.

Deborah Grundmann, 59, an aide to Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, was accused of pointing a gun at another legislative employee, a 33-year-old in the Senate press office who plans to marry Grundmann's son. The press-office aide lived in Grundmann's Juneau home, where the incident took place Dec. 1

According to police reports and charging documents, Grundmann took the pistol from a nephew, who was also in the home at the time, walked into the 33-year-old's bedroom, and pointed the weapon at the younger woman. The nephew, fearing Grundmann was unstable, had removed a 15-shot magazine from the pistol before Grundmann took it, but the press-office aide didn't know the weapon was unloaded.

The aide feared for her life in the incident, police said, and she was "visibly shaking and crying." She told a Juneau policeman that Grundmann "had a crazy look in her eye and kind of smiled."

Grundmann has worked for Huggins for at least 10 years, and the press aide got her job when Huggins was Senate president in the 28th Legislature, from 2013 to 2014. Huggins is now chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and remains a member of the Senate's five-member Republican leadership team. Grundmann's salary before benefits is $124,800 a year.

Public records indicate that the press aide, who was making $79,400, is no longer working for the Legislature, but Grundmann remains on staff.

Grundmann was arrested Dec. 1, booked into Lemon Creek Correctional Center, and charged with using a weapon in an assault, a felony. She pleaded guilty in April to a reduced assault charge, a misdemeanor, and was handed a six-month suspended sentence and three years probation. She also agreed to undergo treatment, including in-patient treatment.

Police said they thought Grundmann was suicidal that night, but was also dangerous. The nephew said he didn't want to give her his silver pistol, as she had asked, because she was "emotionally distraught," he told police. She grabbed it anyway and went upstairs, looking for the 33-year-old press aide. He chased after her, but said he wasn't too worried because he had removed the clip.

The press aide told police that Grundmann in the past "had said she wanted to shoot people if they made her mad." She had decided she had enough of Grundmann and decided that night to leave Grundmann's house. She was packing her bags when Grundmann walked into her bedroom with the pistol. She thought Grundmann wanted to shoot her, she told police.

Grundmann allowed police to question her that night and said she had no intention of harming the aide and had only gone upstairs to show her the gun. She acknowledged she had talked of shooting people before, but said she'd never carry it out.

One of the officers wrote in his report: "She says a lot of things that would lead people to believe she was going to do something, but she does not mean any of it." Then he quoted Grundmann as saying, "I want to shoot people but would never, I should jump in the river but would not, I should kill them but will not."

Grundmann said she was having a tough time over her father's death. She had gone to the cemetery the night before to clean her father's headstone and brought along "a sleeping bag and a picture of Governor Parnell," the officer wrote. Dec. 1 was Parnell's last day in office.

Grundmann has spent much of the time since Dec. 1 on leave, either paid or unpaid, but has also worked for Huggins, one of the Senate's most powerful members. Her long tenure in the Legislature, combined with her position in the Senate majority, the Republican-dominated caucus that controls the body, have made Grundmann one of the most highly paid employees in the Capitol. Her annual salary is close to the top for legislative aides, who are paid more than their elected bosses in the Legislature.

Grundmann remains on the state payroll, but it was unclear whether she has been collecting her salary, and for how long. Legislative human resources manager Skiff Lobaugh said employee privacy rules prevented him from saying whether Grundmann was continuing to receive a paycheck because she could be on leave, and leave is confidential.

The rules around employee privacy "don't allow us to say whether a person is on leave, or is not on leave," he said. Further, leave could be with or without pay, also confidential.

Remaining on payroll could also mean that state health care benefits, which may be valued at $1,000 a month, continue.

Last week, Senate majority spokesman Daniel McDonald said Grundmann provided them with a signed release allowing them to clarify her job status since the arrest. On Dec. 4, he said, Grundmann went on leave under the Alaska Family Leave Act.

That act allows employees to take unpaid leave for up to 18 weeks, and is in some cases more generous than the federal Family and Medical Leave Act on which it is based.

Since then, McDonald said, Grundmann has used a combination of vacation time she'd earned as personal leave and the unpaid leave to remain on the state's payroll.

But, McDonald said, she also was working as an employee and not on leave for "a short time in February and March when she did some session work for Sen. Huggins' office."

McDonald said Grundmann will leave the state's payroll June 30.

Grundmann herself was unavailable for comment, and a phone message left with her sister was not returned. The sister declined to provide a current phone number for Grundmann.

McDonald did not say whether Grundmann came into the Capitol when she worked for Huggins.

If Grundmann was able to qualify for medical leave, under state employment policies it would mean she had a qualifying medical condition that prevented her from working, but such records are confidential under both state and federal law.

By contrast, a fellow legislative employee, former Senate majority press secretary Carolyn Kuckertz, was removed from the payroll within a week of being arrested recently on charges of driving under the influence and hit-and-run.

An online resume shows the 33-year-old press aide's work history had little relevance to a job in the press office, though a few of her jobs involved marketing.

Huggins declined to comment about Grundmann and the press-office aide's employment and referred questions to Lobaugh, who maintains payroll records. But Lobaugh, the Legislature's human resources manager, said he does not have a role in hiring decisions.

The press aide left legislative employment a couple of months after the incident.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the victim was 26 years old. She's actually 33.