ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Officials in the office of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, including his chief of staff, knew for months that his appointed attorney general had sent unwelcome personal text messages to a low-level staffer but told the woman to keep it quiet, the staffer told the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica.
In her first media interview, the woman said that Tara Fradley, the office manager in the governor’s Anchorage office, helped her compose a text to then-Attorney General Kevin Clarkson on April 4 asking him to stop inviting her to his home at night, something he had done at least 18 times. The woman also said that Dunleavy’s chief of staff, Ben Stevens, became aware of the texts by early April but that no human resources investigators contacted her until two months later, after a whistleblower wrote an anonymous letter that was obtained by the news organizations and by an attorney working on an effort to recall Dunleavy from office.
“I was like: ‘The chief of staff knew about this for months. For months. And now you expect me to believe you care about me?’” the woman said, recalling her first meeting with a human resources manager in the state Division of Personnel and Labor Relations in mid-June.
“I said, ‘I’ll be honest with you, I think you’re only doing this because you’ve been exposed,’” said the woman, who asked not to be named because she was the target of workplace misconduct and does not want to become a public figure.
The woman said she spoke directly with Stevens, a former state senator and Republican Party leader, to discuss the attorney general’s overtures multiple times and met with the governor in June.
In the meeting with Dunleavy, the woman said, she was tearful and the governor seemed sympathetic, telling her she had done nothing wrong.
Clarkson resigned on Aug. 25, two hours after the Daily News and ProPublica reported that he sent hundreds of text messages to the junior state employee and had quietly been placed on unpaid leave for the month of August. In a statement at the time, Clarkson apologized for what he called “an error in judgement, which I recognize as wholly and only mine.”
Clarkson did not respond to interview requests or specific questions for this story. Fradley declined to be interviewed.
Stevens, in a phone interview, said he worked to protect the junior employee but could not talk in detail about how he and the governor’s office responded after the woman first reported to her supervisor that Clarkson’s invitations were making her uncomfortable. He said he considers any claim that he would act against the woman’s best interests in order to protect the attorney general to be a “personal insult.”
“I will say this right now. For what reason would I do anything to prevent the truth from coming out for anybody, other than the fact to follow the law?” Stevens said. “The law says not to discuss what’s going on inside an investigation.”
He said Dunleavy opponents, chiefly those working on the recall drive, are fueling efforts to criticize the administration’s response to Clarkson’s text messages. A spokesman for Dunleavy, a Republican, noted that one of the attorneys who worked on the recall now represents the junior state employee in settlement negotiations with the state.
With Clarkson gone, Dunleavy and his administration refused for months to answer questions about what they knew about the attorney general’s behavior and when they knew it, citing the privacy of personnel matters.
Dunleavy’s office and the Department of Law have denied certain public records requests as burdensome “fishing expeditions,” tried to stop reporters from asking questions about the attorney general at news conferences and, as Stevens most recently asserted Monday, said that Alaska law prevents Dunleavy from speaking about the matter.
On Tuesday, after the Daily News and ProPublica presented the governor’s office with a timeline of events related to Clarkson, based on interviews and a proposed settlement agreement between the junior employee and the state, spokesman Jeff Turner provided a statement that described elements of certain meetings and discussions.
The woman and the governor’s office disagree on the timing of some events and Stevens declined to discuss what was said in the meetings, but they generally agreed on the sequence of events: That the woman notified her supervisor of Clarkson’s advances by early April, that the supervisor helped her compose a text that the woman sent to the attorney general on April 4 and that Stevens was made aware of that text soon after.
A series of meetings began in June after word of the misconduct leaked outside the governor’s office.
“My Final Straw”
The woman was working in the governor’s Anchorage office in March when Clarkson began to send her an average of 20 texts per day. The 558 notes included invitations to come have dinner or sip wine at his house at night. He peppered the messages with kiss emoji, workplace selfies and comments on the woman’s beauty.
Clarkson occasionally visited her at Dunleavy’s office, the woman said, stroking her hair or kissing her on the top of the head. She said she regrets not telling the married attorney general to stop the behavior earlier but feared for her job.
His advances began just six weeks after Dunleavy made headlines by seeking President Donald Trump’s help in clearing immigration hurdles facing Clarkson’s wife and stepson. The governor praised Clarkson’s commitment to conservative values and marital devotion in a letter to the president.
The junior staffer said she felt she needed to turn Clarkson down tactfully.
“I was so incredibly uncomfortable with the calls at night,” she said in an interview. “My final straw came when I blocked him for a few days.”
The woman said that at one point, Clarkson visited the office looking for her, causing her to have a panic attack.
The woman said her supervisor, Fradley, whom she had already told about Clarkson’s overtures, could see she was bothered by the attorney general’s arrival.
“Her desk overlooks mine, and she could see him staring at me,” the woman said.
Finally, on April 4, the woman sent Clarkson a carefully worded text that she said had been ghostwritten by Fradley. It read:
“I apologize for not responding to your calls or texts in the past few days. I’ve had a lot on my mind and needed to give myself some time to navigate my thoughts. First and foremost, I have the utmost respect for you as the AG. We both work in the highest level of state serving the Governor and our constituents. That being said, I think it’s time I set clear boundaries in order to maintain the best work relationship & professionalism. You are no doubt gifted in the kitchen! And while I thank you for inviting me to your home for dinner, I don’t think it’s appropriate, nor do I feel comfortable going to your home. Please remember that this is my personal phone.”
She added that if Clarkson had any work-related questions, he could call her at her office number or her state of Alaska email address.
“I don’t accept evening or late night calls on my personal cell phone,” she wrote.
It’s unclear if Clarkson tried to reply, because the woman said she blocked his number. In a statement accompanying his resignation, Clarkson said he ceased his messages to her at that time.
Around the time the text was sent, Fradley told Stevens, the chief of staff, about Clarkson’s behavior, according to interviews with the woman who received the texts and the proposed settlement agreement with her that was written by the state.
The governor’s office says that Stevens did not meet with the woman directly to talk about Clarkson at any point in March or April and that Stevens “never discussed the text communications with the complainant.”
“The complainant’s supervisor informed Stevens that a message ‘setting boundaries’ was sent to Clarkson and no other issues about the complainant were brought to Mr. Stevens’ attention until June 1,” Turner wrote on Tuesday.
In the following weeks, throughout April and May, the woman said, she tried to avoid being in the governor’s office whenever Clarkson visited, finding excuses to leave the room. The woman said that Fradley, in the meantime, told her she would need to deal with these occasional, continued visits from the attorney general.
Fradley “clearly could see I was trying to avoid him,” she said.
“He Wanted Me to Just Deny It”
In early June, the Daily News and ProPublica obtained a copy of an anonymous whistleblower letter describing Clarkson’s interactions with the state employee. It said Dunleavy and Stevens were aware the attorney general had been sending inappropriate messages and inviting the woman to his home but had refused to sanction him.
On June 5, the newsrooms filed a public records request to the governor’s office and the Department of Law asking for all text messages between Clarkson and the woman.
The woman who had received the messages said she began to get the cold shoulder in the governor’s office. People were polite but wouldn’t look her in the eye, she said.
She said she approached Fradley and asked her if anything was wrong.
Fradley “pulled me into an empty office. She just said: ‘Look, there is an anonymous letter that went out.’” (Stevens never actually saw the letter, he said. “I heard people talk about it, but I never saw it.”)
The woman said she did not write the whistleblower letter and told Fradley so.
“I have two kids to provide for and a mortgage. Like, why would I put myself in a situation to potentially lose my job? I have too much to lose,” she said.
The woman said she met with Stevens to talk about Clarkson in June. She asked the chief of staff how she should respond to a reporter’s questions about the Clarkson situation.
Stevens shrugged his shoulders, she said. “He said, ‘Just say, “What situation?”’”
“I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ And he just said, ‘Say, “What situation?”’” she said.
“He wanted me to just deny it. And I said ‘OK,’ but I didn’t do what he said. … I just stayed quiet.”
When a reporter described that conversation to Stevens, Stevens said he would not discuss what exactly he said to the woman in June, citing the human resources investigation.
“It makes no sense that we would, that this office would do anything to protect the attorney general,” Stevens said. “And to say that we suppressed, and that there was an effort to suppress it on anything, is an insult.”
The governor’s office says Stevens first met with the woman to talk about Clarkson on June 7. At that meeting, “Stevens mentioned she needed ‘thick skin’ in response to several inquiries from the press and Scott Kendall,” head of the Dunleavy recall effort, a spokesman for the governor wrote..
At a later meeting, the woman asked Stevens to place her in a job paying $80,000 a year, a significant pay raise, according to the governor’s office. Stevens said he would help her get in contact with potential employers, Turner wrote.
Like Clarkson, Stevens is one of Alaska’s most powerful unelected public officials. The heads of each state department report to him, and he wields the power of the governor to run day-to-day state operations.
Stevens had served as the majority leader and Senate president and is the son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Dunleavy named him chief of staff in July 2019, replacing former Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock. Clarkson at the time oversaw state civil litigation and criminal prosecutions. He served as the governor’s ethics supervisor, and as chief legal counsel he worked to defend Dunleavy from the ongoing recall effort.
Opponents of the governor launched a recall petition in July 2019 in response to Dunleavy’s cuts to the state budget. The Division of Elections rejected the recall petition, based on Clarkson’s legal advice, but Alaska courts have ruled the effort could proceed. It has not yet qualified for the ballot.
“He Just Didn’t Take the Hint”
A flurry of meetings followed the appearance of the anonymous letter in June. At Fradley’s suggestion, the woman said, she met directly with Dunleavy about Clarkson. One of Dunleavy’s special assistants was also present.
Dunleavy “asked me, ‘What was going on?’ And I said: ‘I’ve been feeling really uncomfortable around the attorney general. He’s made many, many invitations for me to come over to his home. I told him, I thought if I kept making enough excuses, he would probably get the clue. But it never happened. He just didn’t take the hint.’”
Dunleavy told the woman she hadn’t done anything wrong and told her he’d think about what to do next.
Before leaving the meeting with the governor, the woman said, she played a voicemail that she had received from Kendall, who had worked as chief of staff for Dunleavy’s predecessor Bill Walker. Kendall had received a copy of the anonymous letter.
Kendall said he left the voicemail on June 1 telling the woman that while they didn’t know each other, he had read a letter describing harassment by the attorney general and offered to put her in touch with a lawyer if she needed one. She never responded, he said.
According to a timeline of the events written by the Department of Law and included in the proposed settlement agreement with the woman, the governor’s office did not request a human resources investigation until June 11, at least 68 days after the woman’s supervisor in the governor’s office became aware of the misconduct and informed Stevens.
A human resources manager within the state Division of Personnel and Labor Relations, Camille Brill, asked the woman to meet. The woman did not know the exact date of the meeting but said it was in early to mid-June, based on her correspondence with Brill. (The proposed settlement agreement, written by state officials, lists a June 12 meeting between the woman and a human resources investigator.)
The woman said Brill told her that she was reaching out at the request of Stevens, the chief of staff, and that Stevens was concerned about her. The woman said she was guarded and skeptical. “I said: ‘Why is he doing it now? Is it because the press has a hold of this?’”
It was Brill whom the woman said she told, “I think you’re only doing this because you’ve been exposed.”
The woman said she refused to give Brill copies of her text exchanges with Clarkson. The attorney general, in the meantime, had also declined to hand over any text messages to his colleagues at the Department of Law.
Brill said she could not comment on her conversations with the woman or any other personnel matter.
On June 19, months after Fradley told Stevens about the April 4 text message the junior employee sent to Clarkson about setting boundaries, the Department of Law responded to the Daily News and ProPublica request for any text messages between Clarkson and the woman with a blanket denial.
“The Department has no records,” the denial letter said.
“Sincerely, Kevin Clarkson, Attorney General,” it concluded.
If the attorney general had work-related public records on his phone, including those that might demonstrate misconduct, he was expected to hand them over, said Chief Assistant Attorney General Alan Birnbaum, who handled the request. When Clarkson claimed no such records existed, no further effort was made to obtain the texts.
“The attorney general does not have and did not have, and therefore did not delete, public records that he sent to or received from (the employee) on his state-owned or personal devices,” Birnbaum wrote.
Asked what steps the Department of Law took to avoid a conflict of interest, given that Clarkson was the head of the department and the records request denials were issued in his name, Birnbaum wrote on June 26 that “no reason exists to question the accuracy of the attorney general’s response.”
According to the governor’s office, Stevens and the junior employee met again in mid-July. Stevens told the woman the administration was at that time “willing to financially assist her with counseling expenses or legal expenses to help her with press inquiries,” Turner wrote.
“Oddly, the complainant did not inform Stevens that she had already engaged Susan Orlansky, an attorney that is also involved with the Recall Dunleavy effort,” the Dunleavy statement said.
Orlansky, who was one of the lead attorneys on the recall, said in a phone interview that she began representing the state employee when her original attorney, who worked at the same firm, became unavailable.
An “Unprecedented Lack of Transparency”
Clarkson was placed on unpaid leave in August, an action that the state intended to keep private. The governor and his communications staff initially claimed they could not reveal information about Clarkson’s misconduct because of personnel privacy laws or regulations.
The Daily News and ProPublica published a report on Clarkson’s text messages and his suspension on Aug. 25. Dunleavy soon issued a statement saying Clarkson had resigned. Dunleavy said he was deeply disappointed by Clarkson’s conduct and would “continue to insist upon professional conduct from all our employees, regardless of their position in state government.”
He also said he couldn’t comment on the matter.
“State law provides guidelines and protections for all state employees including confidentiality on personnel matters. The governor’s office is bound by and conforms to those laws,” the statement said.
On Sept. 1, at the governor’s first news conference following the resignation, Dunleavy spokesman Turner prevented a Daily News reporter from participating when the reporter would not tell him, ahead of time, what questions would be asked.
The governor canceled subsequent weekly press conferences for seven weeks after reporters made it clear they would continue asking basic questions about Clarkson’s actions and the state’s response over the past eight months. (A spokesman said Dunleavy was out of the office for part of September on two hunting trips and granted one-on-one interviews unrelated to Clarkson during the press conference blackout.)
The Daily News and ProPublica have requested interviews with Dunleavy, to talk about Clarkson’s conduct, numerous times since learning of the text messages in June. All requests have been denied. Anchorage’s NBC affiliate, Alaska’s News Source, reported that Dunleavy declined the station’s requests to interview him on Sept. 7, 8 and 14.
On Oct. 9, the Alaska Press Club, a nonprofit that serves reporters and newsrooms statewide, wrote an open letter to the governor describing an “unprecedented lack of transparency” from the administration.
In response to a Daily News and ProPublica request for text communications among governor’s office employees, the state refused to fulfill the request.
“Searching for, collecting and duplicating public record text messages, if any, would not benefit the public enough, if at all, to justify the diversion of state resources to provide the records,” wrote Birnbaum, the chief assistant attorney general.
An Oct. 30 analysis by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Research Services division concluded that claim appears to violate the state public records act. The records act makes no exception for cases in which searching for a public record “would require the state to work hard,” the analysis found.
“The Alaska Supreme Court has never held that a record requested under the (Alaska Public Records Act) can be withheld merely because producing it would be an administrative burden on the state, and nothing in the APRA authorizes withholding a public record for that reason,” legislative counsel Daniel Wayne wrote.
A separate analysis by the same agency concluded that as the head of his department within the executive branch, Clarkson is “exempt from confidentiality provision of the State Personnel Act.” In other words, the governor is free to discuss the matter, the analysis found.
“Of course that begs the question, why won’t they talk about it?” said Adam Marshall, a staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who reviewed the state’s claims. “And why were they citing this bogus legal provision as purported justification for refusing to talk about it?”
The woman to whom Clarkson sent all those texts, in the meantime, changed jobs Sept. 30 after a series of negotiations between her lawyer, Orlansky, and Acting Attorney General Ed Sniffen, email records show.
As of Tuesday, she was considering a proposed settlement offer from the state. The proposed agreement indicates that the state determined she was not qualified for the higher-paying position she asked Stevens about in June.
She eventually accepted an offer in a different department at the same salary she was making in the governor’s office.
When she first complained about Clarkson’s behavior, she didn’t necessarily want it to become public, she said, only for the invitations and messages and visits to stop. She said she is no longer directly supervised by Dunleavy, Stevens or the governor’s office staff but worries she will be fired or see her job defunded now for speaking out.
“Had it not been for this anonymous letter, it would have most likely just been swept under the rug,” she said.