In Years Prior To Investigation, Chaplains And Parnell Aide Submitted Guard Complaints To Governor’s Top Staff

While the governor’s office is now being ordered by a superior court judge to provide more records or explain the reasons for withholding them, the administration did provide a 352-page log of records that could be relevant earlier this week. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that hints of a timeline emerge in the document that outline the Parnell administration’s response to the allegations.

Download Audio

The log begins from the day that Gov. Sean Parnell took office in 2009, and was produced using search terms like “National Guard,” “misconduct,” “fraud,” and “assault.” Many of the 12,000 e-mails do not seem relevant to the request, and cover things like Arctic policy meetings and disaster response. But about 60 pages in, the name of a whistleblower shows up in the subject line of an e-mail between the governor in and his scheduler in November of 2010. From that point on, Alaska National Guard chaplain Matt Friese sent 30 separate e-mails to the governor’s office through the end of 2011.

While Friese could not be reached, his colleague Rick Cavens says those correspondences began after chaplains teleconferenced with the governor four years ago and that they were a group effort.

“We then started conversations through Mike Nizich, who worked for the governor,” says Cavens. “We were to go through him and not go through the governor.”

Cavens says many of the complaints specifically concerned National Guard leadership, not named victims. The subject lines are vague, but many contain subject lines like “Request you forward the attached or “Please forward to the Governor …” and “Toxic Leadership.” Nothing in the log indicates that those records were directly forwarded from Nizich’s account to Parnell. The Governor’s Office declined to comment on the log and did not clarify if the governor was provided physical copies of e-mails or briefed on them, but Parnell has previously said he was informed of every complaint.

Cavens says one of the specific requirements the chaplains had in dealing with the governor’s office is that their communications not be shared with then-adjutant general Thomas Katkus – who was asked to resign in September — for fear of reprisal.

“We didn’t want leadership involved,” says Cavens. “We had tried to talk to leadership, and it hadn’t gone anywhere.”

At the end of 2011, communications between the chaplains and Chief of Staff Mike Nizich suddenly broke down. On December 22 of that year, Cavens sent an e-mail with the subject line “Compromised.” He shared a copy with APRN, and in it, he accused Nizich of violating confidentiality. Cavens wrote that Adjutant General Katkus told one of the chaplains that he was aware that a group of them “have been a conduit to the governor.”

Cavens believed Nizich had identified them to Guard leadership.

“You understood that confidentiality for chaplains is dear and that we all have tried our chain of command and why Chaplain Friese contacted you in frustration,” Cavens wrote in the e-mail. “At this point in time I do not see you as a trusted agent for positive change and growth in the Alaska National Guard.”

Cavens still holds the same view.

“The only way that they would know it was that individual and us is because we had given that information to Nizich. Nizich, in a rebuttal e-mail, became quite agitated but clearly – and I wrote that e-mail – I wasn’t going to communicate with that man anymore. I did not trust him. And if he was giving information to the governor, it was compromised information.”

Nizich emphasized that progress had been made with the Guard that year, and that was because of the work of the Governor’s Office.

“I have served in the military and know all about the chain of command and the sensitivities of going outside those lines,” wrote Nizich. “Since my conversations with DMVA leadership (still on-going) there has been several positive changes made at DMVA and more on the horizon. These changes have not happened by coincidence.”

Cavens disputes that.

“No, it actually got worse,” says Cavens. “There was more leadership that was installed that had a tendency to bully. We were distanced, or I felt I was. I didn’t see any positive changes and I don’t feel that there were any really instigated.”

Nizich also strongly denied breaching confidentiality in his e-mail response.

“I don’t have much more to say to you except I am extremely frustrated right now and disappointed in receiving your communication suggesting that I breached the chaplains confidence,” Nizich wrote.

In an e-mailed statement on Friday, Nizich reiterated his commitment to confidentiality.

“While I respect Chaplain Cavens and the work he has done in the Alaska National Guard, I vehemently deny I violated the trust of the chaplains who came forward with serious allegations of misconduct,” stated Nizich. “I took great measures to ensure their concerns were addressed without identifying them.”

E-mails subsequently released on Friday show divided opinion on the alleged breach, with two chaplains expressing regret at the accusation.

After the e-mails from the chaplains stopped at the end of 2011, there was a lull in obviously relevant communication about the Guard’s problems to the Governor’s office. But at the end of 2012, subject lines that directly relate to complaints about the National Guard begin popping up again. They are forwarded e-mails delivered by Nancy Dahlstrom, who was then a special assistant for the Parnell administration. She passed on nearly a dozen complaints between December 2012 and February 2013. One e-mail specifically mentions National Guard whistleblower Ken Blaylock in the subject line. Some are colorfully titled, like “Another example of theft – Ghost Employees” and “Imprecatory Prayers and ‘that Racist Holiday.” One forward is just labeled “Kodiak Entertainment Group,” a pornography company owned by one of the leaders of the Guard’s recruitment unit.

“There were allegations of different kinds of sexual assault, fraud, theft, drug smuggling, gun running, really serious things like that,” says Dahlstrom, who also served as a legislator from 2003 to 2010. She left elected office to serve as Parnell’s military affairs in 2010, before resigning from the position because of ethics concerns. She rejoined his staff in 2012.

Dahlstrom says that when she first reached out to Nizich about complaints about the Guard and its leadership, she was directed to involve Katkus even though some of the messages concerned him. She was also told that the Administration had already addressed these types of allegations.

“When I first brought these e-mails to the attention of the chief of staff, I was told some similar things had come up before and that they had been checked out and that there was nothing to them,” says Dahlstrom. “But when the different allegations kept coming to me, I kept on sending them up the chain, and I was not privy to any information on who had investigated or what. I was just told it had been done.”

Dahlstrom says that one of the people who regularly e-mailed her was perceived as having an axe to grind.

“Well, I was told that one of the people that was complaining was a former employee who was disgruntled and that most likely played into why these things were being said,” says Dahlstrom.

Dahlstrom says that even so, she continued to pass on the complaints and at one point delivered a package related to the National Guard to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. The FBI had previously been contacted by Nizich in 2010.

“I knew it needed to be dealt with one way or another,” says Dahlstrom. “If it was true something needed to be done, and if it wasn’t true, something needed to be done.”

Once Dahlstrom left her position with the Department of Military Affairs, there was again a drop-off in clear communication about misconduct in the National Guard. Obvious e-mails only pick up at the end of 2013, when the Anchorage Daily News first published a story about problems with the Guard that October. Communication within the Governor’s office about misconduct within the Guard appears active from that time on, with subject lines referring to news stories, records requests, and involvement of the National Guard Bureau.

[“Compromised” e-mail]
[National Guard E-mail Log]

October 31, 8:19pm: This story has been include comments from Parnell chief of staff Mike Nizich, after an interview was initially declined.

agutierrez (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.209.1799 | About Alexandra

Previous articleJudge rules state must comply with National Guard records request
Next articleAlaska Edition: Judicial Council