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1/11/2019
Gov. Dunleavy sued over firings: 3 former state employees claim wrongful termination

By BECKY BOHRER
Associated Press

JUNEAU — Three former state employees are suing Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his chief of staff, alleging they were wrongfully terminated when Dunleavy took office.

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said Thursday it has filed two lawsuits: One on behalf of former state attorney Elizabeth Bakalar and one on behalf of psychiatrists Anthony Blanford and John Bellville, who worked at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

The Bakalar lawsuit suggests she was fired for her political beliefs and online activism, including concerns she's raised about President Donald Trump. ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker said there was no reason based on merit for Bakalar to lose her job and the evidence seemed clear her firing amounted to "political retaliation."

The Bakalar lawsuit includes the results of a 2017 employment investigation surrounding questions about her blog and if she used state time or resources to blog. It found her actions did not appear to violate any state law or policy.

The lawsuit said another attorney, Ruth Botstein, had tweeted or retweeted posts critical of Trump and was the only other non-policymaking attorney in the Department of Law fired when Dunleavy took office. After a news story aired in which her work was praised, the state approached Botstein to see if she was interested in reinstatement, according to the lawsuit.

Botstein could not immediately be reached for comment. Her name did not appear in on online state employee directory.

Dunleavy is a Republican. His chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock, is a former state GOP chairman. The lawsuits, which seek reinstatement, also name the state as a defendant.

Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills said by email that the state doesn't comment on pending litigation. She also noted the case involves confidential personnel matters.

After Dunleavy's election in November, his transition said at-will state employees were asked to resign and reapply for their positions. In a memo asking for resignations, Babcock, who was also Dunleavy's transition chair, said acceptance of employees' resignations would not be automatic and consideration would be given to any statement of interest in staying in their current roles or moving to another.

In a separate statement, Babcock said it was appropriate to ask if employees wanted to work for the administration, which critics said sounded like a loyalty pledge.

While leadership changes are common when a new governor takes office, Dunleavy's team said he had broadened the scope of those asked to resign.

According to the lawsuits, Bakalar submitted a resignation letter but indicated she wanted to keep working, while Blanford and Bellville "refused to swear allegiance to the Dunleavy agenda." Blanford also explained his position in an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News.

The lawsuits allege all three removals violate free speech rights and the policy that state employment be governed by merit.

Information provided in late November from the administration of Dunleavy's predecessor indicated that about 800 employees had received the Babcock memo. The lawsuits say the memo went out to more than 1,200 workers.

It is not clear how many resignations were accepted or employees were otherwise let go when Dunleavy took office Dec. 3 or what the breakdown was by agency or department. The Associated Press was told to submit a records request for that information. It has not yet been provided.

Dunleavy's records officer, Angela Hull, said by email Thursday that records and an explanatory memo were being reviewed by the Department of Law. She apologized for the response time but said prior administrations "have never received similar requests" and identifying potentially responsive records has been challenging.

Decker said it's normal for a new administration to ask policy makers and political appointees to resign so a new agenda can be put in place. But he told reporters from Anchorage that the broader request under Dunleavy, which included non-political and specialized workers, was "unprecedented."