Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks with his cabinet members at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks with his cabinet members at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Free speech under attack? ACLU alleges political retaliation in Dunleavy firings

Firings of state doctors, attorney raise free speech argument

Two former state doctors and a former state attorney are suing Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, alleging they were terminated because of their political beliefs and for speaking out against the administration outside of work.

The lawsuits — from Dr. Anthony Blanford, Dr. John K. Bellville and former Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth “Libby” Bakalar — were filed Thursday morning by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alaska. Blanford and Bellville were previously with the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

The legal complaints name Dunleavy, Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock and the State of Alaska. The suits stem from the administration’s memorandum in November that all non-policymaking state workers submit their resignations and state their interest in continuing to work for the state.

Blanford and Bellville declined to resign, saying that doing so would violate their obligations to put their patients’ needs first. Blanford in particular was vocal, writing in a letter to the Anchorage Daily News entitled “I will not resign” that his allegiance is to his patients instead of the administration.

Bakalar, who was an attorney for the state for 12 years, submitted her resignation but made it clear that it wasn’t voluntary, according to an ACLU press release. Bakalar is outspoken about her political views, authoring a blog entitled “One Hot Mess Alaska” where she writes about everything from pop culture to Alaska life to national politics. She’s been particularly critical of President Donald Trump on the blog and has participated in multiple political rallies.

On Dec. 3 — the day Dunleavy was sworn in as governor — Bakalar, Blanford and Bellville were all notified that they had been terminated, according to the complaints. Bellville said during a press conference Thursday that when he got an email telling him he was terminated, he deleted it at first, thinking it was an error.

Also during Thursday’s press conference, which was held in Anchorage, the ACLU’s Joshua Decker said he believes evidence will show that Bakalar was terminated as “political retaliation” for “out-of-work free speech.” The legal complaint points out that Bakalar’s position is not a policymaking position and that party affiliation was never a requirement for her to be effective at work.

The complaint alleges that the administration fired Blanford and Bellville “for their refusal to offer their pledges of allegiance to the new administration and, as to Dr. Blanford, for the views he expressed in his letter to the editor.”

Bakalar, Blanford and Bellville are pursuing lost wages, benefits and damages, according to the complaints.

Bakalar and Bellville both made statements during Thursday’s press conference.

“I am not here for myself alone,” Bakalar said. “I am here to vindicate the rights of all non-political state employees who speak their mind in their own voices in their personal capacity, to not live in fear that expressing themselves in their voices on social media or attending a political rally on their own time will cost them their jobs.”

The complaint claims that Bakalar was “repeatedly recognized for professional excellence,” and that there was no reason to fire her for job performance. Bakalar said in her statement that she sometimes argued cases in court that didn’t align with her personal views, but that those views never affected her job performance.

According to the complaint, the state hired Anchorage attorney William Evans to investigate Bakalar’s blog to see if it had violated any ethics. On March 16, 2017, he issued a report concluding that she did not violate any ethical standards in expressing her political views on her blog, according to the complaint.

It’s not publicly known how many employees have been terminated since Dunleavy took office. A records request from the Empire to the governor’s office asking for the number of employees terminated has not yet been returned.

Cori Mills, a spokesperson for the Department of Law, said the state doesn’t comment on pending litigation and that personnel matters are confidential.

“The State of Alaska will review the complaint and file its response with the court, at which time we can provide a copy of the court filing,” Mills said.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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