Gov. Murkowski keeps government agencies muzzled

Posted: Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Gov. Frank Murkowski said a gag order placed on state government departments by his administration will not be lifted until a budget is set and a full cabinet appointed.

Murkowski acknowledged at a press conference Monday that Chief of Staff Jim Clark has instructed commissioners, division directors and personnel to direct all media questions to Murkowski spokesman John Manly.

In an e-mail memo sent to commissioners Jan. 2, Clark stated: "Please review with your directors and personnel the policy that all press contact is through John Manly in the governor's office. I realize that this can create awkward situations for the persons contacted. The problem is that the Murkowski administration is not fully in place and its policies thus have not yet been communicated to directors. This in turn creates a situation in which the person whom the press believes is speaking for the Murkowski administration is in reality only speaking for him or herself."

On Monday, Murkowski said the memo was intentionally leaked to the press, but journalists at KTOO, ABC, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Daily News' Capitol bureau have said they did not receive a copy until this morning.

Murkowski said the gag order will not be lifted until he has submitted a supplemental budget and appointed his entire cabinet.

His budget is due by March 6 and commissioners for the departments of Fish and Game, Transportation and Education still must be appointed.

At Monday's press conference freelance journalist Bob Tkacz expressed frustration in his attempts to interview Ernesta Ballard, commissioner for the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Tkacz said Ballard denied his request for an interview Monday, stating she still is under order from the administration not to speak with the press.

"Why does the commissioner of DEC have to wait until you get an Education and Fish and Game commissioner before she can answer questions about her department?" Tkacz asked.

"Well, if she were here I'm sure she is quite capable of responding to that question as to why she is not inclined to give you an interview," Murkowski said.

"She did. She said you are not letting her," Tkacz responded.

Tkacz said he was given a similar excuse after trying to contact division heads within the Department of Fish and Game.

Requests for interviews with department heads by other media outlets also have been denied since Murkowski took office.

Murkowski turned down repeated requests for an interview with the Empire last month for the annual publication Hitchhiker's Guide to the Legislature. The Empire, however, was granted interviews in January with recently appointed budget director Cheryl Frasca and Chief of Staff Jim Clark.

Bill McAllister, reporter and producer of KTOO TV's "Alaska Week" and host of ABC's "Capital Focus," said he has been denied interviews with Attorney General Gregg Renkes, Department of Revenue Commissioner Bill Corbus and others. McAllister, Capital Correspondents Association president, said he was not told "no" in every instance but in some cases his calls were not returned.

"I think part of the job is communicating with the public," said McAllister, who has covered state government in Alaska and Minnesota for 12 years.

McAllister, who covered former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, said the Murkowski administration has curtailed media contact more extensively than he has seen elsewhere.

"Jesse (Ventura) was much more hostile to the press, but you could talk to the commissioners," McAllister said.

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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