Following public outcry, assembly asks legislature to look into grand jury concerns
A coalition of protesters based in Kenai are standing up against what they see as unconstitutional limitations of the power of grand juries to investigate corrupt public officials, and of the public’s ability to access the juries.
Grand juries are made up of citizens and decide whether there is enough evidence to charge a person with a crime. If a grand jury determines there is enough evidence, the case then goes to a trial jury. There are between 12 and 18 grand jurors at a time, and they meet monthly over a year-long period.
A group of advocates including organizer David Haeg has been present at the last several Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings to spotlight what they say is suppression of the power of grand juries
“Those folks are misleading you, trying to strip the power of grand juries so they can insert and steer what happens away from what we believe is systemic corruption involving numerous judges, and we now believe it involves all five Alaska Supreme Court judges,” Haeg told the assembly.
Haeg himself has been speaking out on the issue for years, following his own 2004 trial for unlawful game hunting, through which he was convicted on several counts. He alleges the Alaska Supreme Court is corrupt, and has limited the power of grand juries to investigate corrupt judges and officials.
But the protests were energized again in December, when the court system amended its process for taking citizen requests for a grand jury investigation, making it so a citizen can approach the district attorney if they have an issue they would like a grand jury to investigate. The court system says this was to accommodate a high volume of investigation requests from citizens.
At the assembly’s legislative committee meeting on March 14, Nancy Meade, general council for the Alaska Court System, said citizens have never been able to approach grand juries directly.
“Even though the grand jury has the constitutional authority to investigate, that does not mean that an individual citizen has a right to present anything directly to the grand jury,” she said. “And that has never been the case.”
This week, Haeg and other advocates turned out to the assembly meeting to support a resolution, which requests the Alaska Legislature hold hearings about the allegations of corruption.
The resolution, sponsored by Assembly Members Bill Elam and Cindy Ecklund, drew more than an hour of public testimony and debate from the assembly.
Assembly President Brent Johnson spoke against the resolution. He said he felt the issue was above his pay grade.
“The bottom line is this. I’m really queasy when you’re saying that we’ve got the Supreme Court judges in Alaska and they’re crooks and you’re saying you want them indicted,” he said. “That’s way out of my league.”
Still, the assembly passed the resolution 5-3, with one absence. The resolution only asks that the legislature host hearings, and does not have any effect on borough code.
The following morning, around a dozen protestors showed up at the Kenai Courthouse at sunrise, many with signs reading “Let the grand jury investigate.”
Even though court system representatives say Alaskans have never been able to approach grand juries directly, Haeg said he organized the protest to restore the right of the people to do so, and to show the grand jury members they have support from the public.
“There’s some evidence that the Supreme Court bypassed their own rules committee to strip the grand jury of their power so I am gonna take that evidence and try to give it to the grand jury and ask them to investigate, just like the public is supposed to be able to,” he said outside the courthouse.
The Kenai grand jury was not in session Wednesday, so Haeg was unable to present the evidence he said he had. Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders did not return a request to comment on whether the grand jury had previously been scheduled to convene.
Haeg also organized court sit-ins in Anchorage, Palmer, Juneau and Fairbanks. A handful of supporters turned out to the courthouse in Fairbanks, and at least 20 individuals showed up at the Anchorage courthouse, according to a photo shared by Haeg.