Gov. Parnell says he took immediate action on sexual assault allegations

Governor Sean Parnell discusses his proposed FY15 budget. (Photo by Josh Edge/APRN)

Governor Sean Parnell discusses his proposed FY15 budget. (Photo by Josh Edge/APRN)

Governor Sean Parnell is defending his decision to wait four years to request a federal investigation into reports of a sexual assault problem in the Alaska National Guard. Anchorage Daily News columnist Shannyn Moore wrote Sunday that Parnell first learned about misconduct in the Guard in 2010, when he was approached by three guard chaplains. Parnell says he took those charges seriously, but lacked the details to prompt an investigation until February.

He says after the initial concerns were raised, he went to Major General Thomas Katkus to make sure the systems were in place to protect guard members. Then in February, Parnell says he was able to talk with a guard member who provided specifics.

Based on what you’ve heard from victims and others, how big of a problem do you think sexual assault is in the National Guard?

I think one allegation is too much and I take every allegation seriously, because I am concerned about Alaskans who suffer from sexual assault and violence. It’s been a core part of who I am fighting for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. So, I take every assault allegation seriously. So, in 2010 when the chaplains first came to speak with me and they made allegations that sexual assault was occurring on Guard members I questioned them and asked for detail, and they could not provide it because they were under duty of confidentiality to the people they counseled, but immediately after that I took action and went right to the Guard, to the general, and asked him to talk to me about what he knew of sexual assaults occurring in the Guard. And he went through the cases that had been filed at that time; spoke about how any cases that involved allegations of criminal activity, as in sexual assault, are not only investigated but they are also referred to local law enforcement – like the Anchorage Police Department. And I made sure that for the safety of the victims and any future victims in the Guard that there was, and is, a reporting process that’s safe for anybody in the Guard to utilize; that there’s an investigation process that is complete and accurate and directed that appropriate penalties be assessed. Now, that’s outside the criminal context, but the criminal context goes directly to law enforcement. I had only those general allegations of sexual assault, but I still took action to make sure that there was a system in place that works for victims of sexual assault.

Those general allegations persisted but they were the same allegations about events that occurred years ago. And then on Feb. 26th, Senator Dyson, came to me and said he had specific detail. Before when he spoke to me he had general allegations and he asked me to call a guard member who would provide me with specific detail about how the system wasn’t working. I made that contact within 24 hours of Sen. Dyson’s [call], personally spoke with a Guard member. That Guard member provided me with two instances where, if the allegations were substantiated, that the system would have failed our Guard member. And at that point, I realized I needed to get an independent assessment of the entire reporting and investigation structure. So I called in the National Guard Bureau, they have a complex investigation review team – I did that within 24 hours and that team is on the ground now in Alaska, doing their work to make sure that victims are safe.

Some people will think why was it four years? In hindsight do you wish you would have come forward four years ago, what do you think could have been done differently?

At the time I took immediate action to make sure that every victim of a sexual assault had been referred to law enforcement. I made sure that anyone who had concerns  about what was happening in the Guard had a safe reporting structure, but without specific detail about how the system was otherwise failing, that’s all I could do, is what I believed. And still believe that. But, on the other hand, once I got specific information about how the structure was actually failing, in other words the who, what, where, when why – the same thing you reporters ask – even though I pressed for that earlier and nobody could or would provide me with that, the second I got that kind of information I took immediate action with the National Guard Bureau to get them in there and get an independent look at what was happening.

Talk more about the specifics? What exactly were you needing for you to have that ability to actually ask for an investigation?

So, 4 years ago I was told there is a problem with sexual assault in the Guard. That is the sum and substance of what I was given. When I went to Guard leadership to inquire about that they said that yes they had specific instances where sexual assaults had been reported, that those had been referred to law enforcement for investigation, like the Anchorage Police Department. And they also detailed the reporting structure for any kind of alleged malfeasance in the Guard that was in place. And I had detailed for me, here’s the list of cases that are pending; here’s the list of cases that have been resolved in the past. But when it came specifically to the sexual assaults, when that kind of criminal activity was brought forward, that went immediately, as I was told, to law enforcement, which I think is appropriate.

One of the problems with sexual assault cases is there often isn’t enough information and it’s very difficult for victims to come forward. Did you consider that when you decided not to pursue an investigation earlier? What would you say to a victim of sexual assault about the statement that you didn’t have enough specifics? Do you think that’s enough of an answer for someone?

What I did is an internal state investigation. Meaning, I went in, my office went in and we made leadership tell us exactly what they were doing to protect sexual assault victims. When I had an actual specific set of facts related to how the system had failed, or – in this case – was alleged to fail, I asked the National Guard Bureau, as an independent assessing body, to come in and look at what I had been told and also look at the entire system to make sure we protect our guard members.

The Choose Respect campaign has been a big focus for you. Are you concerned this will damage the momentum or image you’re hoping to get across to Alaskans about coming forward when these things happen?

Well, absolutely. Anyone who knows me would say I care deeply about victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. And I’m more concerned than anything that victims may not come forward.  Because I know from speaking with many across the state how difficult that already is, and I don’t want to make that more difficult. That’s why I launched the immediate investigation, even when I had the barest of details, and now that I have specific details, I’ve called in the National Guard Bureau to help because I think it’s beyond us at this point.

When do you expect the investigation to conclude, when will you have a report and will you commit to releasing that report publicly?

I already have. I have made that commitment. The review team from the National Guard Bureau let me know they would be on the ground, in Alaska in the month of May. They said that it would take several months after that to complete the report and make that available to me. I already committed to making that report public, with the exception of any confidential victim information that should not be put forward, because I do want to protect the privacy of the victims. So, that’s been my commitment and remains so.

You’re still standing behind General Katkus. Do you have confidence in him? Do you wish he would have come to you sooner?

General Katkus has been very forthright. When I started asking questions about sexual assault cases, he came forward right away, showed me the cases that had been transferred to law enforcement, showed me how they have tracked cases, detailed how they investigate cases. And he’s been very proactive about holding what the Guard calls “sensing sessions,” meaning going into guard units and informing people about how to report acts of sexual harassment, acts of sexual violence. So General Katkus has been very proactive in that regard, and that’s what I know at this point.

Do you think he could have done more within the Guard itself to make sure this behavior was not at all tolerated?

From what I know now, the answer is no. But again, I’ve asked the National Guard Bureau to come have that independent look to make sure our Guard members are safe. General Katkus has told me at every turn that’s his desire and mission, he understands it, gets it and he has the systems in place that demonstrate that. I have asked the National Guard Bureau to make sure that those systems truly work for victims because we care deeply, and I care deeply, about protecting Alaskans.

Did you talk to anyone beyond General Katkus about the chaplains’ concerns?

Yes, in fact, our office talked with numerous Guard members. All of which had the same general allegations. There was one victim who came forward and spoke with a member of my office. Her case was also being investigated by Anchorage Policed Department at that point in time, so the answer is yes, we spoke with a number of people.

Mike Nizich-yYour chief of staff- was using his personal e-mail account to correspond about this issue. Why was that?

I spoke with Mr. Nizich and understand that was at the request of the chaplains who wanted to go outside the official channels. However, I’ve asked Mr.  Nizich to check his personal e-mail for that and his recollection is that it’s one email. I’ve asked him to check for that and move it to the state account, which is protocol to follow. And that will be a part of the public record at that point.

McHugh Pierre was asking questions. Who asked him to have the chaplains sign confidentiality statements?

I don’t know that but I do have a copy of what he apparently asked to be signed. It’s a statement that was emailed to all Department of Military and Veterans Affairs employees. It says employees aren’t authorized to give statements on behalf of department without first coordinating the request with one’s supervisor, which is standard operating policy in any department or any business that you don’t speak for the business, you don’t speak for the department. without first coordinating it with your supervisor.

He also spoke with people on base about wanting to know how information was getting out. It almost feels a bit like a witch hunt. Does that concern you that oftentimes it takes people acting outside of the normal channels to get this information out and at the end of the day, that’s the main mission, is it not?

Well that’s true and that’s why I asked these questions. Again, there’s nothing that stops the employee, as long as they’re not speaking on behalf of the department. In other words they’re speaking as a person, as an Alaskan who’s concerned, that’s not what this statement addresses though.

But the chaplains weren’t’ saying they were speaking for the department, they were raising concerns about people who were alleging sexual assault.

And I don’t condone the activity you just described. I do, on the other hand, understand when supervisors are asking their employees not to represent the department in certain things. In this case, I don’t have all the facts, but I don’t condone trying to stop what you’re describing.

So you’re saying you wouldn’t condone McHugh Pierre asking them to be quiet?

No. But again, I don’t have evidence is that’s what he did. What I evidence is that he asked them not to speak on behalf of the department without coordinating that with a supervisor.

What have you taken away from this process? Do you think there are changes that need to be made? Are you frustrated by the process are there things that need to be done differently?

I am frustrated when Alaskans in the Guard don’t feel like they are protected; that’s entirely frustrating. And it’s frustrating to me when I don’t have enough information to take action beyond what I did. In other words, I took action, I made sure that the systems were in place to protect Guard members; and that the people were in place, like an independent investigator – a safe route for people to report, but until the end of February, until then I didn’t have verified facts that alerted me I needed to bring the National Guard Bureau in. So, I do get frustrated when Alaskans are reporting harm and are continuing to report harm, even though, from all appearances, the system is in place and the checks and balances are in place to assure their safety – including referrals to law enforcement agencies.  So if indeed we find there is wrongdoing, I ‘ll take steps to punish that and make it right, there’s no question about that.

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