Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell is turning to the state of Arizona to determine the next steps in reforming the Alaska National Guard, but Arizona may not be the model Alaska needs.
On September 4, Parnell accepted the resignation of Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, the adjutant general (head of the Guard), following the findings of the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations (OCI). The document is not comprehensive, but does paint an appalling picture of the Guard culture.
Parnell requested the OCI investigate the Alaska Guard in February.
A press release announcing the report’s release and Katkus’ resignation said, “The governor will also closely examine the command structure within the Alaska National Guard, which will include further staffing changes.”
Steve McDonald asked Parnell whether there would be changes to the Guard’s command structure during KTUU’s “Political Pipeline” Sunday.
“Absolutely,” said Parnell.
Yeah, but, as the commander in chief of the National Guard, I could not just decapitate the leadership there without some sense for what would be the replacement to lead the guard… I called the Arizona adjutant general [Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire] who replaced somebody else in a similar situation. And I asked him, and then I also asked Gov. [Jan] Brewer in a separate phone call, what was the, what made the difference in restoring trust and confidence in your leadership? And I was told in both cases it was the new adjutant general coming in, and then making the necessary changes in leadership, but also recognizing the good work of those who are there and who deserve to be kept on.
McGuire replaced Maj. Gen. Hugo Salazar, an appointee of then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, when Salazar retired in the wake of Arizona’s own Guard scandal. However, the OCI’s 2013 report on the Arizona Guard generally credited Salazar with improvements in the Guard culture.
McGuire is now part of a panel to find a replacement for Katkus. His involvement came at the recommendation of the National Guard Bureau. A press release quoted Parnell as saying, “Maj. Gen. McGuire understands what it takes to change the command structure. He will play an important role in helping me select a permanent [adjutant general] who will restore confidence and trust in the Alaska National Guard’s leadership.”
OCI Findings in Alaska
The OCI Assessment Team did determine that confidence and trust in the Alaska Guard has taken a blow. The team conducted over 100 interviews of Guard members, as well as surveying the entire Alaska Guard. Only 25 percent of the nearly 4,000 Guard personnel responded to the survey request, which the OCI considered a reflection of “survey fatigue.”
Indeed, OCI were provided with 22 other surveys conducted by the Guard, the results of which were consistent with their own. “While these surveys were being conducted at the unit level,” the OCI report reads, “this indicates that the issues addressed above should not be new to the leadership.”
In other words, Guard leadership already knew about the problems in Alaska.
Lack of confidence in leadership had an impact on reporting. For example, 41 percent of respondents in the Air GuardMajor General Thomas Katkus. Photo by Jim Greenhill, Creative Commons Licensing.
named the loss of confidentiality as a barrier to reporting sexual assault. 30 percent had a fear of social retaliation. In the Army Guard, an identical 41 percent feared the loss of confidentiality when reporting sexual assault. 42 percent also expressed a lack of confidence in military justice and the chain of command.
From the report: “When asked ‘What are the Barriers to Reporting Discrimination,’ 35% of respondents stated they would not report based on fear of reprisal. The Team interprets this to mean that soldiers and airmen are truly concerned by what they have witnessed in the organization.”
For those Guardsmen willing to risk confidentiality or reprisal, there was no system to support them. OCI investigated a ten-year window of the Alaska Guard starting in 2004. However, their efforts were hindered by poor record keeping. While OCI survey results yielded 200 cases of harassment or discrimination in the previous year alone, 35 of which were reported, the State Equal Employment Manager only had documentation for three complaints.
In a footnote, the OCI noted that the “real” numbers were likely higher due to the poor participation in its survey.
“In order to prevent reprisal/retaliation from occurring,” the OCI writes,
[Equal Employment Opportunity/Equal Opportunity] (EEO/EO) counselors and commanders are required… to provide the complainant and witnesses with a Commander’s Reprisal Prevention Plan… The Team was informed by [Alaska National Guard] EEO/EO personnel that commanders were not completing these plans or advising witnesses of their concern regarding reprisal/retaliation with every new reported complaint. This fact may explain why the OCI survey revealed that one of the top reasons personnel do not report incidents of harassment/ discrimination is due to fear of reprisal/retaliation.
Sometimes, reported incidents were deliberately never recorded. “In several instances,” the report says, “leaders attempted resolution without the assistance of EEO/EO personnel… Service members interviewed by the Team perceived leadership efforts at internal resolution as an attempt to cover up sexual harassment allegations.”
Inaction also eroded confidence in Guard leadership. OCI learned of numerous incidents of harassment in its interviews,
including a report of pictures of male genitalia drawn inside aircraft panels at an [Air National Guard] Wing, flight instructors having sex with flight students, and senior leaders sending harassing and inappropriate text messages. Witnesses reported that [Alaska National Guard] internal inquiries into their complaints failed to substantiate the harassing behavior and as a result no action was taken. Indeed the information provided by the [Air National Guard] Wings did not reflect that any administrative action occurred as a result of the complaints made.
Sexual Assault in the Alaska National Guard
OCI reviewed 37 reports of sexual assault in the Alaska National Guard since 2006. There may be even more instances of assault of which there is no record.
Prior to 2012, the Guard Sexual Assault Response Coordinator was a contract employee, unnamed in the OCI’s released findings. Like the EEO/EO, her record keeping was lax. In some cases, the OCI says, reports were “never completed. As a result, victims and leaders were not properly informed regarding the status of their cases, victims were not offered treatment services, and victim information was not adequately treated in a confidential manner[.]” Due to limited supervision, the issues with her office were not known until she left her position.
The OCI team believes that conditions in the Sexual Assault Response Program, including the confidentiality of records, have improved since her departure. But the damage she did prior to 2012 may be reflected in the 41 percent of survey respondents who fear loss of confidentiality when reporting sexual assault.
Of the 37 reports of assault, 20 involved civilian assailants and were thus investigated by local law enforcement. 16 of those 20 were closed without further investigation, mostly due to the “use of alcohol, delayed reporting, or other evidentiary challenges.” The Guard did not track cases after turning them over to local authorities, meaning that any resultant military discipline was either delayed or nonexistent.
“The [OCI] Team reviewed only one case where the [Alaska National Guard] leadership decided to pursue administrative action against a perpetrator notwithstanding local law enforcement’s decision not to prosecute,” says the OCI report.
The [Alaska National Guard] leadership from 2009-2013 initiated numerous internal administrative investigations into reported sexual assaults. The Team noted, however, that many of these investigations were led by individuals who lacked the specialized training to conduct sexual assault investigations. As a result, the [Guard] administrative investigations were not adequately conducted in some cases.
A Culture of Permissiveness
With so many reports of criminal activity disappearing in the chain of command, a culture of permissiveness permeated the Alaska National Guard. OCI found 494 reports of misconduct during the ten years it investigated, and most of those occurred after 2009 since records were often not kept for earlier dates. Of those, one of the most egregious involved an official who employed a government helicopter for his personal use. He also improperly interrogated a victim of sexual assault.
OCI reported a “high level of misconduct” in the Recruiting and Retention Command. An investigation found that, “during the time period of 2008-2009, several non- commissioned officers within this command were engaged in misuse of government vehicles, fraud, adultery, inappropriate relationships and sexual assault,” the report reads. Though the Guard received reports of misconduct in 2010, it did not investigate until December 2012, “creating an impression for several witnesses of favoritism, bias, complacency, or delay of justice,” says OCI.
While the Guard delayed investigation and action against guilty parties in a number of cases, some interviewees said state law did not help. Guard members recommended for early termination of orders have additional protection from the state under State of Alaska v Bowen. That case determined that a Guard employee is also a state employee entitled to due process. Guardsmen who are awaiting an “adversarial hearing” must continue to be paid, often while doing easy work. This enhances the perception of permissiveness. The OCI requested in its report that Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty issue an opinion regarding Bowen, but he has yet to do so.
In the paragraph that likely proved most damning for Katkus, the OCI wrote,
The Team found there was a perception that the [Alaska National Guard] leadership, to include the [adjutant general], were engaged in ethical and moral misconduct and therefore they lacked the moral high ground to take appropriate action when disciplinary matters arose. This perception was articulated during personal interviews and documented in the OCI Command Climate Survey. The Team, however, does not have the authority to investigate misconduct by senior government officials (O-6 promotable [colonel] and general officers) as such, all allegations were referred to the appropriate service investigative body. While the Team did not investigate these allegations, the Team found the allegations pervasive; as a result, whether the allegations are accurate or not, this perception must be addressed in order to restore faith and confidence in the [Alaska National Guard] leadership.
Similarities to Arizona
While the OCI report of the Arizona National Guard is more succinct, the similarities to the systemic problems in Alaska are striking. Once more, the perceptions of favoritism persist, as do incidents of fraternization. Like in Alaska, there is no tracking of claims sent to local law enforcement.
And like Alaska, the Recruiting Command is a hotbed of misconduct. “From 2005 to 2007,” writes the OCI,
some leaders within the Arizona Army National Guard Recruiting Command were found to have engaged in sexual relationships with soldiers in the organization. As a result, these leaders lacked the moral high ground to properly lead and mentor their subordinates, who were responsible for engaging with the public, enlisting new service members, and mentoring new recruits. Subsequently, these subordinates exploited their positions and engaged in progressively more aggressive misconduct, beginning with harassment and ending with assault. This permissive environment existed until reaching a tipping point in 2009 after an individual reported one such assault which led to a thorough investigation[.]
One former “Recruiter of the Year” took new cadets and prospective enlistees on “bum hunts” at least 30 times between 2007 and 2008, according to an investigation by the Arizona Republic. Sgt. 1st Class Michael Amerson, while in uniform and driving a government vehicle, would seek out homeless people in Phoenix and encourage his charges to shoot them with a paintball gun. “During some of these so-called ‘bum hunts,’ female recruits said, they were ordered to flash their breasts at transients. Homeless women, conversely, were offered food, money or drinks for showing their breasts,” reports the Republic.
The Arizona National Guard is also no stranger to sexual assault or harassment. 15 survey respondents in Arizona had been victims of an unreported sexual assault in the previous year, while 79 had been sexually harassed, and 241 reported sexually offensive material had been displayed by a member of their unit. “As only 29% of the organization participated in the climate survey,” writes the OCI, “it calls into question what the number would have been had the other 71% of personnel participated. Sexual harassment and assault are more likely in an environment where the rules are flexible, fraternization is common, and the risk for punishment is low- all of which were findings of the primary assessment.”
Investigation of sexual assault and harassment, like in Alaska, left a lot to be desired. From the report:
Identified victims of sexual assault and harassment stated that they had been victimized twice: once by the perpetrator and once by the leadership that was unable to address their needs. Each noted that it was the inaction or inattention of the leadership which caused the greatest harm.
Several victims/complainants noted in their interviews that the leadership had told them at one point they just needed to be more resilient… (Resiliency is defined [b]y Army Medical Command as “the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges and bounce back from adversity.”) It is unfortunate that a leader would ever tell a sexual assault or sexual harassment victim to be tougher, to stop complaining, or to be more resilient; to do so demonstrate[s] a clear lack of understanding of the resiliency program and Army core values.
The OCI, in contrast to the Alaska report, described Arizona Guard prosecution as predominantly swift, but said that punishment was inconsistent, furthering perceptions of favoritism. Like Bowen in Alaska, the OCI reported that state law impacted prosecution. Until 2009, a lack of funding meant no courts martial were held in Arizona.
Commanders could choose to seek non-judicial punishment (NJP), but in Arizona, Guardsmen could avoid it be demanding a court martial in lieu of NJP. In this way, military-specific misconduct was usually treated as a minor offense, fueling Arizona’s own culture of permissiveness.
Arizona a Model?
In his interview with McDonald on Sunday, Parnell intimated that Jan Brewer and Michael McGuire had already “restor[ed] trust and confidence in [their] leadership” following the OCI’s findings in Arizona. But it would be more accurate to say that the Arizona National Guard is still a work in progress.
Months after the release of the Arizona OCI report, 21 members of the Air Guard were indicted for submitting false temporary duty expense claims totaling $1.4 million.
In 2011, the Arizona Guard assigned a casualty-assistance officer to a recent Guard widow. “Typically, the military assigns casualty-assistance officers to comfort grieving spouses and assist with funeral arrangements, financial affairs and other matters,” explains the Arizona Republic. However, in this case, the officer conducted a sexual relationship with the widow. Then, the captain assigned to investigate the incident began sending sexually explicit text messages to the widow, including a photo.Demonstrators line the corner of N. Lights and The New Seward Highway in Anchorage.
McGuire is having to investigate and prosecute these transgressions, which occurred before his tenure as adjutant general. McGuire has come under criticism for withholding documents related to investigations, suggesting a continuation of the previous Guard culture of cover-up rather than a new culture of transparency and trust.
There is one major distinction between the scandals in Alaska and Arizona that is perhaps the most relevant reason that Arizona is an inappropriate model for Parnell to follow. There is little evidence to suggest that Brewer knew about the dysfunction within the Guard prior to an exposé in the press. Parnell did.
Anchorage Dispatch News columnist Shannyn Moore reported that in 2010, three chaplains held a teleconference with Parnell describing the Guard’s mishandling of sexual assault. Shortly thereafter, multiple Air Guard members sent Parnell a complaint about sexual assault and the misuse of aircraft, claims corroborated in the OCI report. They also called for the resignation of Katkus. Parnell ignored these Guardsmen, eventually promoting Katkus to adjutant general.
The chaplains contacted Parnell’s chief of staff, Mike Nizich, in 2011, continuing to express their concerns about misconduct within the Guard. Nizich communicated with them via his personal email account.
On Monday, APRN reported that its records request for Nizich’s emails had been denied well outside the ten-day window allowed by law. However, APRN obtained emails from early 2012, including a response from Nizich acknowledging receipt of the chaplains’ allegations.
Parnell’s four year delay in seeking an OCI investigation has come back to haunt him. He is seeking re-election in November, so the release of the OCI report and APRN’s documentation that his administration was aware of Guard organizational rot years before an investigation was requested come at an awkward time.
Bill Walker, Parnell’s opponent in November, has weighed in on the scandal. “Some have defended Gov. Parnell by saying he handled this as an attorney demanding substantial evidence and identification of all parties involved, but I strongly challenge that position,” he wrote. “As a local government attorney, I know the proper way to handle any claim of sexual abuse or sexual harassment is to immediately begin the investigation and take all steps to protect the rights of the accused and the accuser.”
As part of Walker’s plan to clean up the Guard, he has called for the release of the full OCI report “to determine who in the chain of command was complicit… Everyone who was complicit needs to be removed from positions of authority.” Walker has also said that, if elected, he would instruct the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate corruption in the Alaska Guard.
One thing Arizona has shown Alaska is that the OCI findings are only the beginning of the healing process. Restoration of confidence in the Alaska National Guard and its leadership will likely take years.