What others say: Governor’s denial of information request thwarts public’s right to know

  • Monday, October 6, 2014 8:45pm
  • Opinion

Problems with harassment, sexual assault, fraud and other issues within the Alaska National Guard are serious business. The scathing report from the National Guard Bureau, the removal of Adjutant Gen. Thomas Katkus and Deputy Commissioner McHugh Pierre and additional promised shakeups in Guard leadership illustrate the gravity of the issues facing one of the state’s prominent institutions. So it’s difficult to understand Gov. Parnell’s reticence in making public documents that would enhance the public’s understanding of what took place to warrant these actions and help ensure such missteps aren’t made in the future.

In May, the Alaska Public Radio Network made a Freedom of Information Act request for emails between the governor’s office, Gen. Katkus and Mr. Pierre related to the reports of problems in the Guard. The guidelines for FOIA requests state that agencies have 10 days to respond, with an additional 10 if more time is required to fulfill them. With the APRN request, the governor’s office took 86 days before notifying the network it was rejecting their petition for information entirely.

It’s not as though the request slipped through the cracks. During the course of those three months, APRN said it made more than two dozen phone calls to the governor’s office seeking a response, many of which were unreturned. When APRN finally received the rejection on Sept. 26, the governor’s policy director Randy Ruaro said the communications, some of which came from Guard chaplains blowing the whistle on chain-of-command abuses, fell under the privilege between clergy members and their parishioners. Furthermore, Mr. Ruaro cited potential harm if victims’ identities became known.

Concern for the disclosure of victims’ identities is well-intentioned, but misguided for two reasons: first, some of the victims of abuses in the Guard have already voluntarily come forward to tell their stories to the media. Second, even if identities of victims were not already known, broadcast and print media in Alaska do not disclose the names of victims of sexual assault or abuse. State officials are well aware of that practice.

With regard to Mr. Ruaro’s rationale that communications with clergy are privileged, that argument would hold water if the communications in question were between Guard members and their chaplains. But the request was for emails between the governor’s office, Gen. Katkus and Mr. Pierre. The chaplains were a third party, and the disclosures they made to state officials would already obviate whatever privilege could be asserted over communications made between those officials after the fact.

The seriousness of the misconduct within the Guard and the tardiness with which the state has addressed it make it all the more important that in responding to the issues, the state is as forthright and transparent as possible. The people deserve a full picture of where mistakes were made in the chain of command, and the information requested by APRN is necessary to that goal. The governor’s office was wrong to block access to it, and the denial doesn’t inspire confidence in the administration’s willingness to fully address the issues.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Oct. 3

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