A legislative audit committee has suggested the executive director of the Alaska Mental Health Trust could be charged with a crime for giving an under-development audit to a public radio reporter.
In a Tuesday memo, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and chairman of the state Legislative Budget & Audit Committee, referred the issue to Robert Henderson, deputy attorney general in charge of the criminal division at the Alaska Department of Law.
According to the account of events provided by Stedman in the memo, public radio reporter Anne Hillman asked a state auditor for an interview about the results of a state audit covering the Trust.
The auditor suggested that Hillman wait until the release of the audit and to read it first. Hillman “responded that she knew that already because she had read the preliminary audit,” Tuesday’s memo says.
Under state rules, preliminary audits are confidential and become public only when finalized by the budget and audit committee.
“When asked who had provided the copy, Ms. Hillman said it had been provided by the AMHT,” the memo says.
The memo goes on to state that providing the preliminary audit to a reporter could be a violation of state laws against “misuse of confidential information.”
That law prohibits the use of confidential information “for personal gain or in a manner not connected with the performance of official duties.” According to Stedman’s memo, that second part could apply in this case to Mike Abbott, executive director of the trust.
Stedman was out of cellphone range and not available for comment, his staff said Wednesday.
Hillman did not respond to a phone call or email, and her supervisor offered no comment.
Abbott, reached by email, referred questions to Mary Jane Michael, chairwoman of the trust’s board of trustees. She did not return a message left on her cellphone but offered a prepared statement through a trust employee by email.
“The trust takes the concerns referred to the Department of Law very seriously. The trust will support any Department of Law effort to address the concerns. In the meantime the trust will continue to work to improve the lives of beneficiaries around Alaska,” she wrote.
Kris Curtis is the LB&A auditor who conducted what turned into a damning report on illegal actions taken by the trust. State law requires the trust’s assets to be managed by the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation. The audit found trust board members violated that law by diverting $44.4 million to real estate deals and land development, sometimes using money that should have been going to trust beneficiaries.
The trust was established following a lawsuit and is intended to fund services for Alaskans with mental illnesses or injuries and defects that affect their minds.
“The audit concluded that the Authority’s board of trustees did not comply with the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act, Open Meetings Act, and the Authority’s bylaws when conducting its business,” according to an executive summary of the audit. “Evidence showed that multiple trustees were, at times, intentionally trying to avoid discussing board business in a public manner. Other times, evidence showed the board failed to recognize the importance of or need for adhering to state laws when conducting and noticing its meetings.”
In response to the audit, Curtis said Wednesday by phone, the trust promised changes in the way it handles business.
“And yet, they breached confidentiality, which raises my concern that they didn’t take the finding seriously,” she said of the new allegations.
Revealing an audit early, before the committee has a chance to finalize its work, is effectively unveiling an incomplete product, she said, which is why the work is kept confidential until the end.
“It’s more important for the accurate information to get out,” she said.
Cori Mills, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law, said criminal referrals and investigations are confidential, so she could not discuss this particular case. In general, she said, the department reviews referrals “and works with law enforcement obtaining the necessary information to evaluate whether criminal charges are warranted.”
Charges of misusing confidential information are highly unusual, and most involve police who improperly access the state’s criminal database to investigate a spouse or significant other. It was not clear Wednesday whether the accusations against Abbott have any precedent.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2258.