Gov. Sean Parnell on Monday defended his decision to not ask for an investigation of sexual misconduct in the National Guard until February, saying he took the charges seriously when they began surfacing in 2010 but he lacked the specifics to act.
Speaking to reporters after a candidate debate in downtown Anchorage, Parnell to criticisms raised the day before by an Daily News columnist.
In February, Parnell sought a special federal investigator, saying he had "recently learned" of information that needed an outside look. In a Daily News column Sunday, Shannyn Moore asserted that Parnell's claim that he had only just learned the information "was very far from the truth."
Guard chaplains met with Parnell in 2010 about reports of sexual assault in the Alaska National Guard. After years passed with no charges or resolution, the senior chaplains -- Lt. Col. Rick Koch and Lt. Col. Ted McGovern -- went public with their concerns in a Daily News story published in October. Victims didn't trust commanders to handle their complaints because of a history of mishandled cases, the chaplains said.
Two women who had reported being raped, Rosa Ralls and Melissa Jones, also spoke out in the story. Both said they never got justice.
On Monday, Parnell told reporters he didn't know specifics until this year.
"When the chaplains came to me in 2010, I listened to them, had a lengthy meeting with them, heard their concerns specifically on sexual assault, sexual misconduct, those charges that they were saying was occurring in the Guard," Parnell told reporters. "They could only give me general allegations."
The chaplains told him they couldn't give specifics because "they were under a duty of confidentiality," Parnell said.
Parnell said he followed up with the guard commander, Maj. Gen. Tom Katkus, and found out that some of the cases were years old, some were still being actively investigated, and that allegations of criminal acts had already been referred to police and Alaska State Troopers.
But "general allegations" of sexual misconduct in the Guard ranks continued, Parnell acknowledged.
The governor said he and Katkus made sure there was a safe reporting mechanism for sexual assault complaints, a case-investigation protocol, and referrals to law enforcement where appropriate.
One of the chaplains also emailed Parnell's chief of staff, Mike Nizich, using Nizich's personal email account "because of the sensitivity of the issue," according to Sharon Leighow, the governor's spokeswoman.
Last fall, Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, told the governor "the chaplains are saying this bad stuff is happening."
Parnell said he asked the senator for leads but Dyson didn't have any at that point.
In December, another Parnell administration official, McHugh Pierre, deputy commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, met with the chaplains. He told them they had not been following "established guidelines," then pressed them to sign "a document regarding sharing (or not sharing) information with certain others concerning the Guard," according to a Dec. 10 letter their attorney, Wayne Ross, sent Pierre. Ross said he was seeking a copy of the letter because the chaplains weren't given a one at their meeting the day before.
On Feb. 26, Dyson met with Parnell in his Juneau office and said, "I have a person in the Guard who will give you specific details on how this system is not working for victims," the governor said.
Parnell said he called the guard member within 24 hours and told the person he thought the system was set up to protect victims. But the guard member told him of two specific instances where the system wasn't working, the governor said. He said he couldn't disclose more about them yet.
"Within 24 hours of learning those specific details, I was writing a letter to the Guard Bureau, contacting them, saying please send a special investigator to review all of the cases that the guard has whether they are related to sexual misconduct, whether they are related to fraud," Parnell said. "Got right on it as soon as I had those specific details."
In his Feb. 28 letter to the Arlington, Va.-based National Guard Bureau, Parnell said he was seeking a federal investigation of sexual assault and fraud in the Alaska National Guard including an examination of how commanders handled reports of rape. He wrote that he was concerned about reports of sexual assaults "creating a hostile environment and culture."
He announced the federal review in March and said Monday investigators were in the state.
Investigators with the bureau's Office of Complex Investigations will finish their work in Alaska in May but their report with recommendations to the governor won't be complete until late summer or early fall, Parnell said. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has called for "transparency" with the findings.
"You can be sure if anything untoward is there or anything that raises concern relative to sexual assault victims or reporting or the command structure, that I will take action," Parnell said.
He said he still had confidence in Katkus.
"I have not heard verified allegations against him," Parnell said.
Parnell has made his Choose Respect campaign against sexual abuse and domestic violence a centerpiece of his administration.
The Alaska Guard controversy didn't come up during the candidate forum but later, in a written statement, Democratic candidate Byron Mallott said that Parnell "campaigns on 'Choose Respect' but fails to act when it comes to enforcing that goal."
He said the chaplains and military officers showed courage but then were disregarded.