Failure of Lt. Gov. to read election laws was sufficient grounds for Coghill recall

When a small group tried to recall former Gov. Wally Hickel and Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill starting in 1991, it took more than a year to get 20,000 signatures, completing the application process that supporters of Gov. Mike Dunleavy recall wrapped up in about a month.

The Hickel/Coghill recall failed because it didn’t have the energy or the momentum displayed by the Dunleavy recall and because the grounds for recall were vague.

The reasons offered for the Dunleavy recall are specific, while those put forward against Hickel and Coghill were far more general in nature. Most of the allegations against Hickel and Coghill dealt largely with opinions or would have been difficult or impossible to prove.

For instance, it was a matter of opinion as to whether Hickel was more forgetful than a governor should be or whether he made sound appointments to boards and commissions. It was a matter of opinion that Coghill had acted in an unethical and unprofessional manner.

By contrast, the grounds put forward against Dunleay deal with identifiable actions and details that are not a matter of opinion.

The one charge against Coghill that a Fairbanks judge eventually found acceptable for an incompetence claim was the statement made by Coghill that he had never read the election laws.

Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Richard Savell did not say that Coghill was incompetent because he hadn’t read the laws. He said the specific allegation was solid enough that the voters should have had the right to determine if Coghill was incompetent.

“It is not the court’s role to assess the truth or falsity of the charges in the petition,” Savell wrote on Sept. 14, 1993. “This is the domain of Alaska’s voters. They, by their votes, become the trier of fact and determine whether the charge can be sustained.”

Later, the state decertified the Coghill recall petition because Savell had rejected the claim that Coghill was unfit for office. The new election director had a somewhat convoluted argument that some voters might have placed all their trust in the claim that Coghill was unfit for office and didn’t care about whether he had read the election laws. After some more back-and forth, the campaign died.

The recall drive, which included everyone from members of the Alaska Independence Party to members of the Sierra Club, split into factions and ended in confusion.

Here are the somewhat vague and generalized statements made by the Hickel/Coghill recall backers that proved problematic nearly three decades ago:

Gov. Wally Hickel:

“Walter J. Hickel is unfit for office. His unfitness is demonstrated by lapses of memory and publicly admitted mistakes which far exceed the normal bounds of sound judgment. He has used the office of governor to intimidate individuals who challenged he legitimacy of his nomination and election. He has used the office of governor to promote a gas pipeline which would benefit him personally.

Walter J. Hickel is incompetent. His incompetence is demonstrated in his selection of nominations for boards and commissions and his negotiation of contracts and agreements such as the rejected Exxon settlement which are not in the best interests of the majority of Alaskans.”

Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill:

John “Jack” Coghill is incompetent. His incompetence is demonstrated by his public acknowledgements that he has not even read the election laws, as well as contradictory public statements regarding his involvement and knowledge of the recall process.

John “Jack” Coghill is unfit for office. His unfitness is demonstrated by his unethical and unprofessional conduct as indicated by his totally unfounded public accusations of criminal activity of recall staff; and, he has used the office of lieutenant governor in an attempt to intimidate individuals who challenged the legitimacy of his nomination and election.”

Former Attorney General Harold Brown received a contract from Hickel Attorney General Charlie Cole to review whether the grounds against them were sufficient to proceed past the application. He said they were not.

He said that in Hickel’s case, “neither the duration nor magnitude of lapses of memory or publicly admitted mistakes is specified” and that the conduct “must be set out with sufficient particularity so that the electorate independently may assess whether the targeted official lacks fitness for office and the public officer has a fair opportunity to defend his conduct.”

“How many lapses of memory were involved and when and where did they occur?”

Brown found that the lack of specifics and vagueness was a major flaw in the recall application, but Election Director Charlot Thickstun approved the petitions anyway, a move that AG Cole said was unconstitutional.

“Thickstun said she doesn't consider independent counsel Hal Brown truly independent because he was appointed by Cole who works for Hickel. Thickstun wanted to hire her own counsel from out of state, who she said would have no connections to Hickel or Coghill,” Anchorage Daily News reporter David Postman wrote on Aug. 27, 1992.

Coghill backed Thickstun, which put him at odds with Cole and Hickel. Coghill had been fighting with Hickel since shortly after the 1990 election, so this wasn’t as bizarre as it now seems.

“But Thickstun and Coghill have their own former attorney general, Edgar Paul Boyko, who is serving as their attorney. Boyko says Cole and Brown are wrong and Thickstun alone has the authority to approve or reject recall petitions,” Postman wrote.

AG Charlie Cole, no relation to me, went to court to countermand an order from the election office to distribute petitions. Boyko accused Cole of dereliction of duty.

To make the situation even more strange, Boyko represented Coghil both personally and professionally, which led to contradictory claims. Boyko represented the election office in its fight against Cole. In that case he was trying to move the recall forward.

Boyko also went to court on Coghill’s behalf to claim the grounds to recall Coghill were insufficient and the recall should stop. Hickel had a similar lawsuit of his own.

In the end, the Alaska Supreme Court heard Coghill’s appeal against the claim that he should face a recall election because he had not read the election laws. The Supreme Court said in 1995, after Coghill’s term ended, “This case is moot because the petition which Coghill contests no longer exists.”

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Dermot ColeComment