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Joe Miller must pay Alaska Dispatch $85k in legal fees, judge rules

Jill Burke
Joe Miller Miller, 46, was backed as the Tea Party favorite in 2010, when he ran against incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Stephen Nowers photo

With his eye on a possible 2014 U.S. Senate run, Alaska Tea Party politico Joe Miller has been dealt a financial blow after losing a legal fight with the media, stemming from his last attempt to win a Senate seat three years ago.

On Friday, Alaska Superior Court Judge Stephanie Joannides ordered Miller to pay more than $85,000 of Alaska Dispatch’s attorney fees and costs stemming from the news organization’s 2010 lawsuit to make public Miller’s employment records during his time as a part-time government lawyer.

Alaska Dispatch had already won the suit, arguing that Miller’s records -- which detailed episodes of misconduct for which he was punished and barred from rehire for three years -- should be available for Alaska voters to review. At the time, Miller was a Republican candidate in a three-way race for the U.S. Senate. In the wake of the election, Miller -- a Yale Law School grad -- dragged out the litigation for nearly two more years.

“Miller’s conduct, which included taking inconsistent positions, failing to disclose information during discovery, and his procedural filing, which the record did not support, all caused unnecessary delay and costs for both Alaska Dispatch” and the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the judge wrote in her ruling.

Reached via email Sunday, Miller spokesman Bill Peck said Miller and his staff had yet to see the judge’s ruling.

In seeking the release of Miller's records, Alaska Dispatch spent more than $112,000 in legal fees and costs, expenses Dispatch sought to recover from both Miller and his former employer, the custodian of his employment records -- the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Miller and the borough each now owe the news site some level of reimbursement, though Miller's share is much higher.

John McKay, a longtime Alaska media attorney who represented Alaska Dispatch throughout the quest to release Miller’s employment records, called the judge’s award an important vindication for news organizations and ordinary citizens seeking to enforce their rights to access public records.

“The fact that Mr. Miller was not allowed to keep these records secret from voters before the election was the most important thing,” McKay said. “But it is also critical to send a message that government agencies and individuals fighting disclosure can’t make the public bear the entire financial burden of opening public files to the light of day.”

Alaska Dispatch's total fees were $112,375. Other costs incurred came to $2,309.

Because Joannides found Miller's dragging out of the lawsuit and his other conduct in the case to be in bad faith and vexatious, she ordered him to pay 75 percent of the fees and 50 percent of the costs, for a total of $85,436. The borough must pay 10 percent of the fees and 50 percent of the costs, a total of $12,392.

The amount of the award -- nearly $100,000 combined -- is among the highest ever assessed in Alaska in a suit over wrongful withholding of public records, McKay said.

When a party wins a lawsuit in Alaska state courts, they are generally entitled to recover 20 percent of their legal fees. Unique circumstances allow a judge to award a much higher amount.

“Mr. Miller unreasonably ran up the cost of this litigation for both the Dispatch and the Borough,” McKay said. “After we got the records released, he refused to let the Dispatch out of the case unless it gave up its rightful claim to fees as the winning party and made the Dispatch incur more and more unnecessary fees, using this as leverage. The judge correctly rejected this tactic, and the Dispatch should be credited for setting an example by resisting such intimidation.”

For Miller, the unfavorable ruling comes at a time when he’s exploring another run for U.S. Senate, this time against Democrat Mark Begich, who is up for reelection next year. First, Miller could face in the August 2014 Republican primary Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who, like Miller, has launched an exploratory committee to consider a run against Begich.

But will the drama of Miller’s last run for office -- drama that continues to cost him money -- taint his political ambitions?

It's all in the past

Miller, 46, was backed as the Tea Party favorite in 2010 when he ran against incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

A West Point graduate, decorated Gulf War veteran, and Yale Law grad who also holds a master's degree in economics, Miller fashioned himself a reformer with core conservative values who was ready to help save the nation from corruption and bankruptcy.

The primary election unfolded in late August 2010, as much of Alaska was still in shock after a plane crash killed former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens a couple weeks earlier. Miller toppled Murkowski to the surprise of many from the Last Frontier to the Washington, D.C. Beltway.

But what happened next would in many ways cast doubt on Miller's political future.

During the lead-up to the 2010 general election, Miller had railed against government entitlements and overspending. Yet, a review of his past showed he’d received state farm subsidies, and his wife, whom he'd hired to work for him when he was a U.S. District Court magistrate, had taken unemployment when she stopped working that job. Meantime, Murkowski had jumped back into the race as a write-in candidate. Records would later surface that showed Miller had abruptly left the federal court gig in order to try a run for local political office and that the chief judge continued to hold a negative opinion of him during the 2010 election cycle – so much so he had to recuse himself from overseeing Miller's election-related lawsuits.

Between unflattering revelations of Miller's past, the illegal handcuffing of Alaska Dispatch's editor at one of Miller's town hall events, and boastful pre-November tweets about shopping for a house, office furniture and a name plaque in Washington, Miller's D.C. dreams began to evaporate in the last weeks before the election.

Sneaking onto co-workers’ computers

During all of this, Alaska Dispatch wanted to review his records from when he worked as a part-time attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The borough would not turn over the records unless Miller was willing to make them public. And Miller never gave the go-ahead for a full release. He did allow some records to come out, but kept the damaging ones shielded, and refused to openly discuss his past in its entirety with the media.

Alaska Dispatch, which was joined by other media, led the charge to successfully convince a state judge that the public's right to fully evaluate Miller's employment records was more important than the privacy of a candidate seeking one of the nation’s most powerful political offices. The judge also found that someone seeking such a high office should expect their past to become public.

When the records came out, the picture of a job tainted by stress, lies and politics emerged from the paper trail.

It was revealed that while serving as a government attorney, Miller had snuck onto his co-workers’ computers to vote in his own online straw poll on who should be the new head of the Alaska Republican Party. The bizarre episode had unfolded in 2008 when Miller -- along with his ally, then-Gov. Sarah Palin -- was in a pitched battle to unseat Randy Ruedrich, then-chairman of the state GOP.

Though this was not a nail in the coffin for his work with the borough, the relationship ultimately deteriorated to a point that he chose to walk away from his job rather than get fired.

‘Active political force’?

In the years since 2010, Miller has reinvented himself as a political pundit and online publisher.

He describes himself as “an active political force,” citing his speaking appearances at Tea Party gatherings and his chairmanships of the state-federal political action committees Restoring Liberty. As of March, his federal campaign committee, Citizens for Joe Miller, held more than $425,000.

In an open letter on his website, Miller speaks of why at he hasn't let go of his Senate aspirations:

"We need a candidate in 2014 who will join reformers like Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz to confront President Obama, not one who will cut a deal to negotiate the terms of our surrender to his radical socialist agenda."

Miller has 30 days to appeal Judge Joannides' decision.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com