Her Story Brought Down Alaska’s Attorney General. A Year Later, She Feels Let Down.

0
194

More than a year after the acting Alaska attorney general suddenly resigned, the criminal investigation into his alleged sexual contact with a teenager decades ago is not complete, and two special prosecutors hired to look into the case have billed for less than two weeks’ time.

Nikki Dougherty White told the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica in January 2021 that Ed Sniffen began an illegal sexual relationship with her in 1991 when she was a 17-year-old high school student and Sniffen was the coach of her school’s mock trial team. Sniffen was 27 years old at the time.

Under Alaska law, it is a felony for an adult to have sex with a 16- or 17-year-old if the adult is the minor’s coach. (In most other cases, the age of consent in Alaska is 16.)

Sniffen resigned as the Daily News and ProPublica were preparing an article about the allegations.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who appointed Sniffen to the role, has said through a spokesperson that he was unaware of the allegations against Sniffen until the newsrooms began investigating White’s story. The governor then directed incoming Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor to “appoint a special outside counsel, independent of the Department of Law, to investigate possible criminal misconduct by Mr. Sniffen.”

Billing records obtained by the Daily News and ProPublica show two special prosecutors hired to look into the case have spent a combined total of 70.5 hours investigating the matter. As of Feb. 11, the state of Alaska had spent about $19,500 of a budgeted $50,000 on the investigation.

White, who has cooperated with the investigation, says she’s tired of waiting for answers.

“I feel like the state’s letting me down,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be a high level of interest from the government in getting this right.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Law referred questions to the independent prosecutor and said the department “is not involved in this investigation in any way and has no input or influence over the timing or status.” The special prosecutor, Gregg Olson, said this month that he cannot proceed until he receives a final report from the Anchorage Police Department.

“I anticipate that the investigation is near its conclusion,” said Olson, a retired state prosecutor who worked in the office of special prosecutions and as the district attorney in Bethel and Fairbanks. “But I don’t make any conclusions, form any opinions about a case until the investigation is complete.”

The Anchorage Police Department declined to answer questions about the investigation, which according to Olson is being handled by a detective within the Crimes Against Children Unit.

Sniffen has turned down repeated interview requests and, through his attorney, Jeffrey Robinson, would not say if he has cooperated in the investigation. Neither Olson nor the Department of Law spokesperson would say whether Sniffen has cooperated.

“Mr. Sniffen disputes any allegation of wrongdoing, and out of respect for the process undertaken by Mr. Olson, declines to comment any further,” Robinson wrote in an email.

One Resignation Followed Another

Dunleavy appointed Sniffen to the attorney general position on Jan. 18, 2021, pending confirmation by the state Legislature. Sniffen was a longtime attorney for the Department of Law’s consumer protection unit but was unfamiliar to many Alaskans until he was named as the replacement for Attorney General Kevin Clarkson.

Clarkson had resigned in August 2020 after the Daily News and ProPublica revealed that he had sent hundreds of personal text messages to a junior state employee. (In his resignation letter, Clarkson acknowledged errors in judgment but characterized his texts to the woman as “‘G’ rated.”)

When Sniffen resigned, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law said the new attorney general had determined that it would have been a potential conflict of interest for one of the state attorneys who had been working for Sniffen to investigate the case, and the state would “contract with special counsel to ensure an independent and unbiased investigation into any possible wrongdoing.”

That was 397 days ago.

The Department of Law originally selected former sex-crimes prosecutor Rachel Gernat to oversee the case. Gernat said at the time that she did not know Sniffen personally and was not a current or recent state employee.

Potential witnesses told the Daily News and ProPublica they were contacted for interviews in the first six months of 2021, and White said the investigation seemed to be moving swiftly.

White and her attorney, Caitlin Shortell, said they held multiple Zoom meetings with Gernat, providing additional details and the names of other potential witnesses.

“One thing that we heard from Rachael Gernat was that this case is astonishingly well corroborated despite the fact that it happened so long ago,” Shortell said. “That it is more well corroborated than cases that happened last month.”

Shortell said she doesn’t know what remains to be done in the investigation and that as far as she knows, “almost all of the witnesses were able to be contacted.”

But on June 8, 2021, while still under contract with the Department of Law, Gernat applied for a job within the agency.

“Based on that inquiry, I was replaced as the special prosecutor,” she wrote in an email to the Daily News and ProPublica. “This replacement was to avoid any appearance of bias and to ensure the confidence in the neutrality of the special prosecutor.”

Olson replaced Gernat as special prosecutor a month later, on July 12, 2021. Gernat had worked 49 hours on the case.

The next day, Gernat emailed White’s attorney to inform her of the change, noting that the “investigation itself is coming to a conclusion.”

To White and her attorney, there has appeared to be little movement in the case since Gernat’s departure.

“It’s been months and months of nothing but radio silence,” White said. “It’s difficult to have gone through first the article, and then to go through the three intense interviews with the Anchorage Police Department, and then to have multiple calls with the previous prosecutor.”

“And I feel like now it’s just kind of gone into this void of nothing,” she said.

Olson said that after his initial request for the police to take additional steps in the investigation, he has been waiting too.

“Honestly I personally would have hoped that I was going to get this case, get the report, make a decision and move on,” he said. “I’m still waiting for that. Hopefully, it will happen soon.”

Compelled to Speak Out

In 1991, when, according to White, she and Sniffen began a sexual relationship on a high school trip to New Orleans, the Alaska Legislature had recently changed state law to ensure that educators and other authority figures could not legally have sex with teenagers under their care or influence. The legislation was seen as closing a loophole that had been revealed two years before when an Anchorage teacher and newspaper columnist was charged with having a sexual relationship with one of his 17-year-old students. A judge at the time found there was no law against the relationship.

The Legislature amended the sexual abuse of a minor law in 1990 to make it a crime for a teacher, coach, youth leader or someone in a “substantially similar position” to engage in sexual activity with someone who they are teaching or coaching and who is under the age of 18.

That law took effect on Sept. 19, 1990, according to state law library records. A substantially similar version remains on the books today.

State prosecutors have used the law to file criminal charges against 12 people over the past five years, according to sex crimes data provided by the Alaska Court System.

One of the most recent cases, filed June 8, 2021, involves a village public safety officer accused of having sex with a high school student who had asked for a ride home from a party. The officer was 27 years old at the time; the alleged victim was 17.

Alaska State Troopers learned of the alleged crime when the VPSO confessed to another law enforcement officer and that officer reported the case as required by state law, according to charges filed in state court. The former officer has pleaded not guilty.

Another two cases resulted in convictions, two were dismissed and seven are awaiting trial.

Under current Alaska law, there is no statute of limitations on felony sexual abuse of a minor, although Gernat said at the time of her appointment that it can depend on the severity and timing of the offense. In one 2016 case, an Anchorage jury found a man guilty of sexually abusing a 16-year-old while acting as an authority figure, for abuse that occurred in 2005.

Asked if he had concluded whether any statute of limitations might apply to allegations against Sniffen, Olson said only, “I have not made any final legal determinations in the case.”

White said she does not regret going public with her story despite the delays. She is Athabascan and Alaska is her home state, she said, and when she heard Sniffen had been named as the state’s top law enforcement officer, she felt compelled to speak out.

“This means a lot to my family and I wouldn’t have been able to sit by and say, ‘Oh I just need to let this go,’” she said. “If Clarkson was drummed out for text messages to an adult woman, I felt that Sniffen had absolutely zero business sitting behind the desk of the attorney general.”

Story Credit: /ProPublica

Photo Credit: Nikki Dougherty White//ProPublica