Critical Capitol guard is fired

Letter to the editor about legislators' drinking runs afoul of agency's policy

Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2005

Ex-Capitol security guard Dan Bussard expected to "maybe get a reprimand" for writing a letter to the editor about legislators drinking alcohol at the state Capitol.

"I wasn't expecting to get fired," he said on Friday. "It's my freedom of speech, and I should be able to express my point of view."

But the Legislative Affairs Agency, which canned Bussard, pointed to agency rules about guards not leaking information to the media.

"He violated that," said Pam Varni, the agency's executive director. "And we were having other performance problems (with him)."

No one disputes that some legislators and staff members tipple now and then in their Capitol offices. But lawmakers said it happens after-hours and not nearly as often as Bussard said.

Bussard's letter appeared in Wednesday's edition of the Juneau Empire. It carried his name as the author but did not identify him as a security guard at the state Capitol.

"Do you know who can and does drink on the job? Our elected state officials, that's who. ... On any given afternoon it is not hard to find several people in different offices sitting around having a drink," Bussard's letter said.

Alcohol is not allowed in other state buildings. But the Legislature makes its own rules for the Capitol, and alcohol is permitted. Some legislators said they work long days and don't mind a drink with colleagues.

"We basically live in the building," said Anchorage Republican Rep. Norm Rokeberg, who sets rules at the Capitol. "I believe people should not be prohibited ... when they have to work extraordinarily long hours for extraordinary lengths of time."

Bussard said his letter came out on his day off. He said he got a call at home from his boss asking if he wrote it. The next day he was fired.

His termination letter spelled out other reasons, asserting he had been warned about a lack of eye contact with the public, among other things.

True, he conceded. But he said he was just looking down at the closed-circuit security camera monitors. He said he believes he was fired in retaliation for the letter.

The termination letter said he also violated the Legislative Affairs Agency's rules of guard conduct.

"No employee may disclose any information overheard during the course of their employment between an elected official or a staff member and others, to any member of the news media. ... No employee shall make any news release concerning events witnessed in an official capacity," the rules say.

Bussard said he didn't think it was appropriate to have alcohol at the Capitol -- especially when people could get fired for drinking in other state buildings.

He worked two full legislative sessions on the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. He said he saw Capitol drinking start at a roughly 5 p.m. "happy hour," and particularly on the weekends.

"People treat the Capitol like a bar. I've seen them bring cases of beer in," he said.

But he said he's never really seen anyone get drunk at the Capitol.

He said he didn't want to name which legislators drank at the Capitol, since he's hoping to get another state job.

Rokeberg said it is "totally false" to say legislators are frequently drinking in the Capitol.

Legislative leaders see that it doesn't get abused and upset the decorum, Rokeberg said.

"There could be after-hours get-togethers with members, but very infrequent ... maybe an occasional poker game," Rokeberg said.

Lawmakers mentioned "Foster Night" gatherings hosted by Nome Democratic Rep. Richard Foster with music in his office. A few years ago Foster got scolded when the party started "growing a little too much." Lawmakers said it quieted down.

Foster declined to comment.

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, who used to work as a legislative aide, admitted he has had a nip at the Capitol. Guttenberg said there's likely drinking going in the building, socializing when the workday is done and the weekend comes.

"There used to be a lot more in the '80s; it was amazing how much was going on," he said. "It was more public, and there was more of it."

Guttenberg said banning alcohol in the Capitol "should be given major consideration" because he doesn't like when the Legislature allows itself to do things forbidden to other state officials.

Rokeberg said he didn't know the specifics of Bussard's firing, but if he broke the rules of guard conduct, "that would be appropriate."

House Majority Leader John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, said Bussard should have brought his concerns to legislative leadership instead of airing them publicly.

"He certainly didn't go through the proper channels," Coghill said.

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