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Investigations underway on reports of mishandling of sexual assault complaints in Alaska Guard

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Two investigations are underway of the Alaska National Guard over reports that sexual assault complaints were being mishandled, and one is scheduled to wrap up this week.

The Guard is being pressed by political leaders, including both Alaska U.S. senators, to get to the bottom of reports of unresolved sexual assaults and other problems that have festered for years, some of which already have been investigated.

Last June, Sen. Lisa Murkowski asked the Department of Defense inspector general to investigate, her office said this week.

The senator was concerned by reports from National Guard chaplains that sexual assault victims had been coming to them for years with complaints that nothing was being done, according to her spokesman, Matthew Felling. Most accused fellow Guard members, and the victims went to the chaplains because they didn't trust commanders to help, according to news reports.

"They've been victimized once and now they don't believe that anything will happen if they speak," Murkowski said in a Senate floor speech in March.

A report from that inspector general investigation is expected to be completed this week, Felling said Tuesday afternoon. Murkowski intends to make that report public, he said.

Separately, in March, a relatively new arm of the Arlington, Virginia-based National Guard Bureau began investigating reports of sexual assault and fraud in Alaska at the request of Gov. Sean Parnell. The governor said he will make that report public.

The bureau's Office of Complex Investigations focuses on sexual assault but also handles other matters.

That investigation won't lead directly to criminal charges; any suspected crimes will be referred to the appropriate authorities, a spokesman said. The Office of Complex Investigations "has no criminal jurisdiction," Jon Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Arlington, Virginia-based bureau, said in an email.

The bureau wouldn't estimate when its Alaska investigation will be complete or even say how many people are working on it. Parnell said it will take months.

A team of investigators has already done initial interviews and a survey of the "command climate" is supposed to be complete by June 1, Parnell said Monday.

Investigators interviewed him early on about the concerns that prompted his request, he said.

Command climate surveys are intended to evaluate morale, the leadership and the organization as a whole, said Maj. Candis Olmstead, spokeswoman for the Alaska National Guard.

Sen. Mark Begich in 2012 pushed for an investigation of the Alaska National Guard after hearing reports from multiple people about sexual assaults, abuse of power, a hostile work environment, drugs, fraud, waste and abuse, according to a letter from the time.

"The seriousness of the issues raised -- coupled with recent command climate surveys -- indicates the morale, discipline, ethos and integrity of the (Guard) as an organization are in jeopardy," Begich wrote in March 2012 to Gen. Craig McKinley, then chief of the National Guard Bureau.

He was promised a thorough investigation but now the same issues are rearing up again, he wrote in April to McKinley's replacement, Gen. Frank Grass.

"I wasn't satisfied with the first one that was done," Begich said Friday.

In a recent meeting in Washington, D.C., Grass assured him that with the new office, investigators have the authority to do a broad examination, Begich said.

"I am glad to see the bureau there. I am glad to see the IG there. Because it's important to deal with the issues," Begich said.

Parnell requested the bureau investigation in February, though he first heard concerns back in 2010 about sexual assaults and other forms of misconduct in a telephone conference with the chaplains and a Guard leader. Bob Doehl, the former vice commander of the Alaska Air National Guard 176th Wing and now an aide to Begich, said he urged Parnell to use due diligence in examining the complaints.

Parnell said Monday that when he initially was told about the concerns, he checked with Maj. Gen. Tom Katkus, who has led the Alaska National Guard since 2009 as the adjutant general, to make sure a process was in place for investigating the reports and referring them to law enforcement. The Alaska National Guard doesn't have a criminal prosecution arm. The governor said he was assured there was a working system.

It wasn't until late February that he heard through state Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, about "specific facts or allegations ... that called into question that reporting and investigation process," Parnell said Monday.

Dyson said Tuesday that he had been hearing for years about "bad things" in the Guard and that he hoped those reports were the exception. Then last year, one of the chaplains told him more and he went to Parnell.

"He was a bit aware and my impression was that the information he had was that yeah, there were some issues and they were being investigated," Dyson said of the governor.

Parnell oversees the Guard. Katkus also serves as commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

In February, Dyson said the chaplain put him in touch with Lt. Col. Jane Wawersik of the Alaska National Guard. Among other things, she was investigating sexual misconduct, including allegations of inappropriate relationships with new recruits at the Alaska Army Guard recruiting and retention unit at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

"Boy, did she impress me," Dyson said.

As Dyson remembers it, Wawersik said she was investigating a large number of cases.

"More than a couple dozen, and that there was validity to them," Dyson said. He said he got the impression she was being pressured to back off.

He took that information to Parnell, who talked to Wawersik then requested the investigation.

In February, the Alaska National Guard revealed that a dozen members faced administrative charges of sexual misconduct.

The Office of Complex Investigations was created in 2012 to ensure "that matters are investigated by trained professionals who have the greatest background, training and experience," said another bureau spokesman, Jeremy Webster.

Air and Army Guard members are hand-selected to investigate sexual assault and most are either attorneys have extensive backgrounds and training. The investigators are trained out of Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

At a Senate appropriations subcommittee last month, Murkowski pressed for the bureau's Alaska investigation to be clear and open, "for a level of transparency with the reports and the outcomes."

"The reason we did stand up the Office of Complex Investigations was exactly for that reason," Grass responded. "We could bring someone from outside the state to provide a report back to the governor."

Since 2009, there have been nine reports of sexual assault against members by Alaska National Guard, said Olmstead, Guard spokeswoman. There are about 4,000 Army and Air Guard members in Alaska.

"People are somehow under the impression that there is an ungodly number of sexual assaults that have occurred and that is not the case," Olmstead said. "Nine is a bad number in that we don't want any to happen."

None have been prosecuted.

That is up to civil authorities, she said.

ldemer@adn.com
 

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