For Joe Miller, stress, lies and politics tainted his borough job, records show
October 27, 2010
Jill Burke and Patti Epler | Oct 26, 2010
Glance through coverage of Joe Miller.
U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller was at times stressed, paranoid and deceitful during his employment with the Fairbanks North Star Borough, according to records released under court order Tuesday afternoon.
When he got caught doing something wrong – using his colleagues’ computers to advance his own political interests — he lied about it repeatedly and at one point suggested it was his colleagues, not him, who had in fact broken borough policy, the records show.
Miller worked at the borough from 2002 to 2009 as a part-time attorney. Many records show he was a high performer — achieving pay increases and exceptional performance reviews, and earning a master’s in economics that the borough helped pay for. He was instrumental in litigation involving valuation of the trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries more than 10 percent of U.S. domestic oil production. He was so good, in fact, that his value to the case spared him the embarrassment of being fired when he broke the borough’s ethics code, according to former borough Mayor Jim Whitaker.
But while Miller’s public achievements may have been rosy, newly obtained records show a much different scenario was playing out behind the scenes. The story is woven throughout dozens of pages of his borough personnel file and e-mails involving Miller, documents that were released by the borough Tuesday after first Alaska Dispatch and then other news media went to court to force their disclosure.
Miller, who is locked in a tight three-way (Read “Joe Miller admits to lying but do Alaskans care?”) race for Senate with incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democrat challenger Scott McAdams, has been stalling release of the records and last week fought their disclosure in a public records case filed by news media.
He did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
In March 2008, Miller was placed on administrative leave for 15 days and suspended without pay for three days after getting caught using co-workers’ computers in an effort to influence Republican Party politics. He was also required to undergo mandatory counselling.
Miller has long been a political crony of former Gov. Sarah Palin, and in March 2008 was assisting in her effort to get Randy Ruedrich booted as the Alaska Republican Party’s chairman — a political takeover that ultimately failed.
Palin and Ruedrich had been at odds before, famously in 2003 when Palin, then an Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission commissioner, discovered that Ruedrich, also a commission member while state GOP chair, was conducting Republican business out of his state office. She exposed Ruedrich’s ethical lapses — forcing him to resign and resulting in a $12,000 state ethics fine — and then used her reputation as a corruption fighter to bootstrap her way into the governor’s office.
Miller’s personnel file includes documentation and a more serious view of the actions Miller has described in recent weeks, including on national TV as “petty” and irrelevant to the issue of who is best suited for office.
Miller: ‘I was an ass. I was beyond stupid.’
Just days before the Alaska Republican Party’s 2008 convention, Miller was hosting a poll on his personal website, joemiller.us, that was aimed at ousting Ruedrich. On March 12, while other employees were at lunch and Miller was alone in the office, he used three of his co-workers’ computers to vote in his own poll. He tried to cover up the deceit by clearing the caches on the computers, the records show.
Miller’s scheme was revealed by his own attempts to cover his tracks. When he erased each computer’s cache he also erased important passwords and IDs that the other attorneys needed to access legal research websites. Miller’s co-workers knew something was wrong when they couldn’t log on after lunch.
In the short span of time the employees were trying to get to the bottom of what had happened, Miller lied no less than four times:
–He told them he’d had to use another computer because he couldn’t access the website he needed to get to on his.
–He claimed he had to clear the cache or the website might block his access.
–He initially denied being on more than one computer
–And he claimed he was visiting a professor’s website at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
In a written account of events offered by one of Miller’s co-workers — identifed in an earlier redcords release as “employee 3” but now known to be Jill Dolan, Miller’s acting supervisor at the time — Dolan states that the office staff felt none of what Miller was saying made any sense and that he was acting bizarre.
Miller had also been talking about threats he had recently received, but wouldn’t offer specific details. Dolan also didn’t trust his stories about the computer use because he had, some time earlier, been asking a lot of questions about accessing the computer servers and wanting to make sure they were safe from hackers.
He insisted his colleagues were “overreacting” and even attempted to shift the blame to them.
“He maintained the whole time he did not violate the computer use policy and that actually all of us did for not securing our computers,” Dolan wrote.
Miller was immediately placed on administrative leave and notified that an investigation would ensue. Unhappy about that prospect, he indicated he would rather resign than undergo that process or face being fired, according to notes in his file made by his supervisor.
Miller eventually came clean.
“I was an ass. I was beyond stupid,” he said according to notes in the file. It was a “lapse of judgment” and a “total screw up.”
He had “too much on his platter” and was having problems with his wife because he was “too flipping busy,” according to the notes.
In a March 17, 2008 e-mail to one of his supervisors, borough attorney Rene Broker, Miller formally admitted to the allegations against him:
“Over the lunch hour this past Wednesday, I got on three computers (not belonging to me) in the office. All of them were on and none of them were locked. I accessed my personal website, for political purposes (participated in a poll), and then cleared the cache on each computer. I did the same thing on my computer. Jill asked the office what happened. I lied about accessing all of the computers. I then admitted about accessing the computers, but lied about what I was doing. Finally, I admitted what I did.”
“I acknowledge that my access to others’ computers was wrong, participating in the poll was wrong, and there is absolutely no excuse for any of it,” he added.
Nine days later, the borough disciplined Miller for inappropriate conduct and inappropriate use of computer and network resources.
“You accessed three Legal Department employee computers for a non-borough purpose and then you were dishonest both about your conduct and the reasons for your conduct,” wrote Broker in a memo outlining Miller’s punishment. “It has been apparent in the last several months that you are under significant stress and it has affected your judgment as evidenced by your actions on Mar. 12, 2008.”
When asked in early April how he was doing, Miller indicated he had to find a way to be less busy. “I’m fine but need to slow down,” he told Broker in an e-mail.
According to then-borough mayor Jim Whitaker, who earlier this month publicly revealed Miller’s politicking after Miller refused to discuss it himself, the incident was far from minor.
“It’s not petty, particularly if you are an attorney and if you have potentially broken laws in the course of your business. That is not petty,” Whitaker said in a recent interview. “I think there is a pattern of deceit.”
‘My blood is boiling’
About a year and a half after Miller was in trouble for politicking, employees would again report behavior they felt was bizarre and deceitful. It would be the end of the line for Miller, who ended up resigning without notice after disagreements with his boss and others in the office.
“My blood is boiling at his continued misrepresentations,” wrote Dolan to Broker in an e-mail Sept. 1, 2009, the same day the borough accepted Miller’s resignation.
The reference comes in an e-mail string discussing Miller’s planned time off — and his looming departure from the borough.
In late August 2009, Miller wrote a detailed letter to Broker resigning his position effective Sept. 23. He cited a declining office relationship stemming from disputes over cases, outside attorneys, cancelled time off for hunting trips with his sons, and concerns over the way a potential conflict of interest was handled.
Still, he said, he wanted to use leave time during some of his remaining month, for a medical procedure.
Broker appears to have been unsympathetic to Miller’s requests for personal time off. She’d already rejected leave to go elk hunting later in September and bear hunting in October. The office needed him to be on-hand, she indicated, and only the medical leave would be approved.
Although he had been approved to take three and a half weeks off for medical leave to undergo an unidentified procedure at the Veterans Administration facility in Anchorage, Miller apparently cancelled the appointment after arriving in Anchorage, yet refused to return to work as directed. Broker later concluded the urgency of Miller’s medical issue may have been overblown.
The records don’t reveal what medical condition Miller may have been seeking treatment for; medical terms have been redacted in compliance with the judge’s order.
On Sept. 1, the borough attorney’s office was notified by the VA that Miller had cancelled the medical appointment. When he failed to show up at work that day, supervisors discussed, via e-mail, what to do. His time off would no longer be consider medical leave.
They asked him to be in the office by 2 p.m. He refused and resigned immediately.
Miller called the line drawn by the borough over the technicalities of his time off as a “retaliatory act due to our differences,” but Dolan refused to budge.
“You cannot obtain leave on the basis that you need [redacted] immediately and keep the leave when that circumstance changes significantly. Instead you did not show up to work today and when requested to do so you resigned effective immediately. What exactly am I missing here,” she wrote in an e-mail to Miller about two hours after accepting his resignation.
By that time, Miller’s supervisors were already wary of the part-time attorney who clearly was on his way out. E-mails in his personnel file show colleagues and other outside attorneys had been told not to copy him on documents or correspondence having to do with what was once his biggest case — the trans-Alaska oil pipeline valuation matter.
When he failed to keep his medical appointment and then refused to come to work, that was it.
“So do we just consider him to have quit without notice today then?” Dolan wrote to Broker.
“That’s how I read it,” Broker replied.
His personnel file includes the notation that he is not eligible for re-hire for at least three years.
Miller’s quest to protect his records
Since June, Miller has been at the center of a public records fight aimed at finding out more about his background, particularly the seven years he spent as a part-time attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Former state legislator and political blogger Andrew Halcro, who is supporting Murkowski in the Senate race, first suggested on his website that Miller was fired from his borough job or forced to resign.
The borough, citing a local ordinance that keeps personnel files confidential unless the employee agrees to their release, refused to discuss Miller’s work there or release any records.
Miller initially showed Alaska Dispatch and other media his resignation letter — which was heavily redacted — but refused to let them take a copy. In mid-July, the borough released about 150 pages of documents from Miller’s personnel file, including a less-heavily redacted copy of Miller’s resignation letter, which showed he quit over a disagreement on a case and because his vacation plans — he was going to take his sons elk hunting — had been cancelled by a supervisor.
At the time, Miller insisted he would be happy to release all of his personnel file if the borough would waive attorney-client privilege. He implied it was the borough that was blocking the release of the file.
But on July 15, assistant borough attorney Jill Dolan sent a letter to Miller essentially asking him what he was talking about. The borough didn’t think his file was covered by attorney-client privilege and wanted Miller to point to records he thought should be kept secret for that reason. Miller never responded to the borough and continued to assert to the press and on his campaign website that he’d like to make the records public so people could know his background.
Anchorage attorney D. John McKay, who represents the Dispatch in the public records case, said Miller’s view that the borough was preventing him from talking to voters about his past was “absolutely false.”
“In fact, bar counsel specifically issued a written opinion that he was free to talk about this even if the borough didn’t want him to, and the borough confirmed that that was their understanding too,” McKay said. “It’s unfortunate that he’s hiding behind that and sort of creating a cloud of confusion in a matter that the public might generally not be really familiar with.”
The personnel records standoff continued through the summer and fall, while the media continued to look into Miller’s history in other ways. In late August, after Miller who been largely unknown in Alaska politics eeked out a primary victory over the veteran Lisa Murkowski, figuring out who Joe Miller was became a top priority for reporters.
In September, Alaska Dispatch reported on farm subsidies that Miller had received on land he’d owned in Kansas, this after he’d spent much of the campaign arguing that federal handouts and government entitlement programs were wrong. He also used a state agricultural loan fund intended to promote farming in Alaska to buy 1,000 acres of land near Delta Junction that he’s never farmed.
The stories about farm subsidies were soon followed by other revelations that seemed to contradict Miller’s public policy views. It turned out he’d received state-subsidized health care for his family in the mid-1990s, he’d claimed indigency in order to get a state hunting and fishing license for a much-reduced fee, and his wife had received unemployment benefits after he fired her as his office assistant when he was a part-time magistrate in the rural town of Tok.
He was also months late filing financial disclosure reports required for people running for the U.S. Senate.
Media outlets, with an eye on the fast-approaching Nov. 2 general election, stepped up efforts to pry loose the public records that existed on Joe Miller — his Fairbanks North Star Borough employment file.
Miller: I’m not going to answer
In early October, McKay, working on behalf of Alaska Dispatch, wrote a letter to the borough asking officials to reconsider their refusal to release the personnel file. He argued that it was important for voters to know as much about a candidate as possible, and he produced state Supreme Court rulings that agreed. His letter prompted the borough to write its own letter to Miller, asking him again to allow release of his file and chastising him for continuing to make it seem like it was the borough that was blocking the release.
Meanwhile, people who had worked with Miller at the borough were growing frustrated with what they saw as Miller’s obfuscations. They started talking quietly at first, and then some of them publicly, about Miller’s troubles at the borough.
The Dispatch published a story Oct. 10 reporting that Miller had apparently used borough computers for political purposes having to do with trying to get Ruedrich removed as GOP party chairman.
On Oct. 11, the Dispatch filed a lawsuit seeking to force the release of the personnel file. The Fairbanks Daily-News Miner later filed suit, as well as the Anchorage Daily News and The Associated Press, which join the consolidated cases as intervenors.
Miller, caught by questions from local and national media about the accusations, changed his political and media strategy. Instead of insisting — as he’d been doing for months — that he wanted the records released and it was the borough that was resisting — he cried foul, saying his family was being attacked and that someone in the borough had illegally leaked his private and personal information to the media.
Still, he decided it was time to ignore the local media, and speak only to national reporters and in particular those working for conservative-leaning media, like FOX News.
“We have drawn a line in the sand,” he told Alaska reporters on Oct. 11 at a press briefing following a candidate’s debate at the Dena’ina Center. “You can ask me about background, you can ask me about personal issues, I’m not going to answer. I’m not.”
That prompted former borough mayor Whitaker to publicly corroborate the allegations reported by the Dispatch, saying he was coming forward because Miller was refusing to tell the truth about the incident. “It did make me angry,” Whitaker said after Miller’s pronouncement that he would no longer be answering questions. He said Miller was nearly fired for the misuse of public computers, but that he was needed on the big pipeline tax case.
More recently, Whitaker said he thinks Miller engaged in “a pattern of deceit” while working for the borough.
“There’s a pattern of deception, a pattern of irreconcilability with the truth, and that’s troubling,” Whitaker said.
He said that in discussions with Miller’s supervisor at the time, Borough Attorney Renee Broker, it was clear that it was a serious situation and Miller’s supervisors had concerns that some crimes may have been committed.
For his part, Miller has accused Whitaker, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, and the media of committing crimes over the release and publication of confidential information. He has also claimed that his personnel file was leaked, although no proof has been offered that this actually occurred. Miller later blamed that inaccuracy on an overzealous campaign staffer.
Whitaker wasn’t the only one astounded by Miller’s thumbing of his nose at the media — and by extension the public. By the end of the week, reporters were attending every public event involving Miller and trying to get him to change his mind and talk about his employment record at the borough.
Handcuffs and admissions
On Oct. 17, Alaska Dispatch editor Tony Hopfinger tried to ask Miller about whether he was disciplined as Miller chatted with people just after a town hall at Central Middle School in Anchorage. Miller walked off without answering, and his private security team detained and handcuffed Hopfinger, accusing him of trespassing and assault. Anchorage police rejected the “private person’s arrest,” and the municipal prosecutor refused to file charges against Hopfinger or the security guards.
The arrest of a journalist by a Senate candidate’s private security team captured the attention of the nation, and Hopfinger was interviewed by dozens of newspaper, broadcast and Internet outlets throughout the country. More than ever, the press wanted to know what had happened with Miller at the Fairbanks borough and how could a candidate for high public office simply refuse to tell voters about his background.
The next day, Miller went on CNN and acknowledged under questioning that he was disciplined for the ethical lapse. He downplayed the affair, saying it was during his lunch hour and that it had nothing to do with why he eventually left the borough more than a year later. On Oct. 24, at a debate on KTUU Channel 2, Miller seemed ready to talk more freely about the incident, describing it as “petty,” and blaming “naïve” and inexperienced campaign staffers for advising him to clam up about it in the first place.
Miller, who once called his past behaviors “irrelevant,” has also tried to portray himself the victim of a media witch hunt. That can be an effective campaign technique, noted Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in New York.
The Institute specializes in tracking what it considers “battleground states.” Alaska has become one of those this year with Murkowski, once considered a shoo-in for re-election, in the fight for her political life against Miller and McAdams. The drama of that battle has attracted Fox News, CNN and MSNBC to Alaska once again.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com and Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com .