JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) – Governor Mike Dunleavy has joined the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska in defending a settlement agreement they reached that would see the state of Alaska pay $495,000 to two former psychiatrists who won a wrongful termination lawsuit against him.
The governor was responding to an opinion piece written in the Anchorage Daily News by Jahna Lindemuth, a former attorney general who served under Governor Bill Walker. She argued that it was both “illegal and unethical” for the state to make the payment because Dunleavy and his former chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock were found personally responsible for the firings.
“Just as the state cannot pay a public servant’s mortgage or credit card debt, it is illegal under our constitution for the state to pay this settlement,” she wrote.
Stephen Koteff, the legal director for the ACLU of Alaska, was lead counsel in the case, representing the two psychiatrists against the governor. He wrote a separate op-ed, saying it’s routine for the state to cover its employees’ legal fees and that Lindemuth is “completely wrong.”
“Being upset that Dunleavy and Babcock aren’t hanging out to dry personally is one thing. But to suggest that the public funds used to settle this case somehow violate the constitution is a misleading and misinformed statement that could have dangerous consequences,” he wrote.
The dispute stems from a years-long legal battle that was settled earlier in the month.
The new Dunleavy administration had called for the resignation of about 800 employees at will in November 2018. Drs. John Bellville and Anthony Blanford, who worked at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, had refused to resign and reapply for their posts in what was seen as a request for loyalty by the new governor.
US District Judge John Sedwick sided with both psychiatrists in October, saying in his order that the move violated both the Alaskan and US constitutions. His order stated that by violating the constitutional rights of psychiatrists, Dunleavy and Babcock risked being held personally financially liable.
Dunleavy and Babcock appealed, but the settlement was reached before the issue of personal financial responsibility was resolved by the appeals court. Bellville should receive $275,000 for damages, lost wages and attorneys’ fees, and Blanford should receive a lump sum of $220,000.
“Most importantly, the regulations make it clear that no future governor, or anyone in state government, may take politically motivated employment action against a nonpolitical employee because of their affiliation. or political beliefs,” Koteff wrote in his op-ed. .
The question now is who should pay the financial costs of the settlement. The governor said it was right for the state to take notice.
“We believe that if ordinary citizens who wish to run for office are then subject to certain legal actions in their capacity as who they are – whether it is governor, legislator, school board official – we think it’s very difficult for people to be able to do their jobs the right way,” Dunleavy said Thursday.
The Legislative Assembly will now have to decide whether or not to allocate the $495,000 needed to pay the settlement to the two psychiatrists. The question was submitted to the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.
The committee reviewed on Wednesday a memorandum released by the Alaska Department of Justice saying Dunleavy and Babcock should be compensated by the state.
“The current Attorney General, as well as previous Attorneys General, have consistently determined that state employees should receive state-paid compensation and representation for even serious errors if those errors occurred in the course of their employment and that the employee has not committed willful misconduct or gross negligence,” the memo reads.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, finance committee member and attorney, is unconvinced. He believes there is “a very strong likelihood that you will attend a trial” if the legislature approves payment of the settlement.
“The state had no liability, so the state shouldn’t be paying for this,” he said in an interview with Alaska’s News Source on Friday. “They rather confer an advantage on someone in the executive. This is a violation of the Executive Power Act. It’s not something that any other citizen would get.
Court documents say the $495,000 settlement amount is at the “discretion” of the Legislative Assembly.
“To refuse to fund the settlement would simply be punishing the victims of the Dunleavy administration’s chess game, in which public employees became disposable pawns if they appeared to have the potential to stand in the way of the governor’s political agenda,” Koteff said Friday. .
The Senate Finance Committee is expected to hear more about the settlement at an upcoming hearing. A House finance subcommittee also considered the matter on Friday.
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said he wanted to know more, but said the fight for the settlement plays into an electoral battle for governor’s office in the November election.
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