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1/7/15 - Legislative Senate Majority hires ousted Alaska National Guard official

Former military affairs official McHugh Pierre to handle Republican Senate Majority media strategy after being fired by Gov. Sean Parnell

By Alexandra Guttierrez, APRN

A recently ousted military affairs official has been hired by the Alaska Senate Majority to guide their media strategy.

McHugh Pierre was asked in September to step down as deputy commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, as part of then-Gov. Sean Parnell's attempts to reform the Alaska National Guard. His resignation came shortly after the release of a federal report that concluded the Guard suffered from leadership failures and a toxic command climate. The next month, Pierre established a public relations firm, Quantum Communications.

Pierre has now been brought on to help the Senate's Republican majority caucus in their communications with the press. Senate President Kevin Meyer, who made the hire, considers it essential.

“It’s only 90 days,” says Meyer, “but we need all the help we can to get our message out to the general public and to our constituents.”

Last month, Meyer joined other legislative leaders in calling upon Gov. Bill Walker to enact a staffing freeze in response to a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall. Because his caucus’ press office had a vacancy, Meyer doesn’t see that order conflicting with Pierre’s hire. He adds Pierre will not be put on payroll as a state worker, but instead will be awarded a four-month contract paid out of the Senate Majority’s funds.

Meyer says this was done in an effort to be frugal. The contract has yet to be signed, but Meyer says it will not exceed $35,000. Anything over that amount requires a vote of the 14-membe r Legislative Council.

“My expectation would be it would be closer to $30,000,” says Meyer.

Meyer says he interviewed other candidates for the position before reaching out to Pierre. He adds that he reached out to his colleagues to see if they took issue with the hire. Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican who will co-chair the finance committee, noted that Pierre was married to her chief of staff, but did not find that to be a problem. Meyer says MacKinnon’s office was not involved with the hire, nor was his own wife, who is a special assistant in military affairs commissioner’s office.

“Absolutely not,” said Meyer. “My wife is so not political that she didn’t even know about it until I mentioned it to her last night.”

Though Pierre started his career off as a television reporter, he’s spent the bulk of it in state government. He managed public affairs for former Gov. Frank Murkowski, and did similar work for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. He also served as a spokesperson for the Alaska Republican Party.

When Pierre stepped down from his commissioner post in September, his letter listed his accomplishments and expressed an enthusiasm for “new adventures in the private sector.” But it didn’t make any reference to problems in the Alaska National Guard, which reached a crisis level during the Parnell administration.

Parnell did not provide a reason for Pierre’s dismissal, except to say it was connected to his National Guard reform effort.

Records released in response to a lawsuit by Alaska Public Media and the Alaska Dispatch News contain a June e-mail from Parnell to his top aides, ordering that Pierre “have absolutely nothing to do with cases where Guard members are under investigation or subject to review – especially as they relate to two people he is personally connected to” after Pierre reportedly involved himself in a former classmate disciplinary matter.

Separately, chaplains, who had confronted the governor and legislators about the mishandling of sexual assault in the Alaska National Guard, have complained that Pierre directed them to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Sen. Kevin Meyer says he considered Pierre’s resignation when deciding to award him the contract, but that he couldn’t find concrete information that Pierre acted inappropriately.

“I’ve asked around to try to figure out what he’s been accused of or what he’s guilt of, and nobody knows,” said Meyer. “So I don’t how much of that was political hype, and how much of that is reality. But certainly if we find out that if he was involved in any way that’s illegal, then yeah, we would terminate his contract immediately.”

Meyer adds he was not aware of Parnell’s e-mail on Pierre.

In a phone interview, Pierre said he did not do anything wrong.

“I was asked to resign because the governor was ready to have someone new in that position. You serve at the governor's pleasure, and it was clear that he didn't want the senior leadership to stay," said Pierre.

"I never did anything wrong,” he continued. “I don't believe the organization did any wrong. I think the organization did everything it could to support its members.”

Going into the legislative session, a number of lawmakers have already stated reform of the Alaska National Guard is a priority.

The federal report by the National Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations found that Alaska guardsmen were reluctant to report cases of sexual assault because of a lack of trust in the system, and that the Alaska force has problems with favoritism and fraud.

Senate Judiciary Chair Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, has expressed interest in holding National Guard hearings, and Gov. Bill Walker is currently screening candidates for a special investigator position.

Pierre says he will not handle communications strategy related to the Alaska National Guard.


Alaska’s new U.S. Senator assumes office

Dan Sullivan was sworn in yesterday as U.S. Senator for Alaska. A Republican, former state attorney general and commission of natural resources, Sullivan defeated incumbent Democrat Mark Begich in November.

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