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Articles and Investigations – ProPublica: Sexual Misconduct Allegations Prompt Another Alaska Attorney General to Resign

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This story was co-published with the Anchorage Daily News, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Acting Alaska Attorney General Ed Sniffen’s abrupt resignation was announced Friday as the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica were preparing an article about allegations of sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old girl three decades ago.

Nikki Dougherty White, now 47, recently contacted the news organizations with a detailed account of how she and Sniffen began a sexual relationship in 1991 while she was a student at West Anchorage High School. At the time, he was a 27-year-old attorney with a local law firm and a coach of her school’s mock trial competition team.

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The sexual relationship began during a trip to New Orleans for a national competition when she was 17, and it continued for about two years back in Anchorage, she said.

One of White’s former teammates said White confided in her about the sexual encounter with Sniffen while the team was still in New Orleans. A second former teammate said he learned of the sexual encounter around the same time, possibly on the plane ride home. A third teammate remembered hearing that something inappropriate had happened between Sniffen and White upon the team’s return to Anchorage.

Under an Alaska law enacted in 1990, months before Sniffen and White traveled to New Orleans for the national mock trial competition, it was illegal for an adult to have sex with a 16- or 17-year-old whom he or she was teaching, counseling or coaching. (In many other instances, the age of consent in Alaska is 16.)

Former Acting Alaska Attorney General Ed Sniffen

Former Acting Alaska Attorney General Ed Sniffen
National Association of Attorneys General

The Daily News and ProPublica started asking questions about Sniffen’s relationship with White on Monday and began speaking to former members of the mock trial team and others throughout the week. At about 3 p.m. on Friday, the governor’s office issued a statement saying Sniffen had “removed himself for consideration as attorney general and will be leaving state service.”

In his resignation letter, Sniffen wrote that he had decided to step aside “after discussions with family, and for personal reasons.” Sniffen did not respond to calls to his home phone and cellphone numbers.

On Saturday afternoon, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Jeff Turner, said the governor was unaware of the allegations against Sniffen when he accepted his resignation on Wednesday. (The resignation was announced publicly two days later, a delay that Turner said was due to the need to select a replacement and “prepare for an orderly transition.”)

The state Department of Law has now launched an investigation at the governor’s request.

“As details of the allegations became known, the governor directed Attorney General Treg Taylor (Sniffen’s replacement) to appoint a special outside council, independent of the Department of Law, to investigate possible criminal misconduct by Mr. Sniffen,” Turner wrote in a statement provided to the Daily News and ProPublica.

In a separate statement from the Alaska Department of Law, spokeswoman Maria Bahr said the new attorney general has determined that a conflict of interest exists given Sniffen’s history with the department, and the state “will contract with special counsel to ensure an independent and unbiased investigation into any possible wrongdoing.”

Sniffen is the second Alaska attorney general to step down within the past six months amid a Daily News and ProPublica investigation into their interactions with women. Former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson quit in August, hours after the newsrooms revealed he had sent hundreds of unwanted text messages to a junior colleague. Sniffen was named his temporary replacement and, on Jan. 18, Dunleavy designated him as Clarkson’s permanent successor, subject to confirmation by the Legislature. At that time, the governor said Sniffen “has a long and proven record of leadership within the Department of Law and I am proud to appoint him to serve as our state’s next Attorney General.”

Following Clarkson’s resignation, survivor advocates called on the governor to carefully consider the selection of his replacement given the state’s “continued crisis with rape culture.” Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation, and the appointed attorney general oversees all criminal prosecutions in the state.

Sniffen started working for the Alaska Department of Law in 2000, serving as a senior assistant attorney general in the consumer protection unit, then as a chief assistant attorney general, deputy attorney general and chief of staff. He worked for multiple administrations run by Democrats, Republicans and an independent. Former Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, who elevated Sniffen to the position of deputy attorney general during her term, said she had never heard any allegations against him.

Several Anchorage attorneys said they had been aware for decades that Sniffen had an inappropriate relationship with a young woman early in his career.

In addition to helping coach the mock trial team at West Anchorage High School, Sniffen also volunteered for the nonprofit Anchorage Youth Court, said White, who said she dated Sniffen for about two years from 1991 to 1993. Public records show White and Sniffen lived at the same address in Anchorage after she turned 18.

White said that while they were dating, Sniffen was told he could no longer volunteer for youth-oriented organizations when those nonprofits learned of his potential relationship with a former student. William Bankston, then a board member for the Anchorage Youth Court, said he recalls telling an attorney at Hughes Thorsness Gantz Powell & Brundin that the attorney could no longer volunteer at the youth court after the attorney was seen attending a party with the former student. He did not recall the lawyer’s name, but Sniffen worked at the firm at the time.

Attorney Michael D. White was the statewide coordinator of the high school mock trial competitions in the early 1990s. He said that within a year of the New Orleans trip, the event organizers also learned that Sniffen was in a relationship of some kind with one of the students he had coached.

White, who is not related to Nikki White, said the mock trial organizers looked into the matter and were assured, he can’t remember by whom, that the sexual relationship did not begin until after the school competition.

He said that he can’t recall if Sniffen was barred from volunteering in the mock trial events, but that after the discovery Sniffen no longer served as a coach.

“We never had an issue with any complaints against anybody, other than this Ed thing,” White said in a phone interview.

Four of Nikki White’s former high school teammates who joined her on the trip to New Orleans corroborated key details of her account. One teammate, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution given Sniffen’s prominent position, said White confided in her after White and Sniffen first had sex at the hotel.

That teammate said she then told two other members of the team who are now attorneys, James Christie and Chester Gilmore, on the flight home to Anchorage. Gilmore confirmed that account.

Gilmore said he later became aware that Sniffen’s relationship with his classmate continued after the trip and that over the years he thought about it every time Sniffen’s name was mentioned. He said he was surprised to see Sniffen nominated as attorney general.

“There were people there who knew,” he said.

The Trip to New Orleans

In 1990, the Alaska Legislature sought to close an apparent loophole in state sex crimes statutes after charges were dismissed against an English teacher at Bartlett High School who had been accused of having consensual sex with a 17-year-old student. A judge at the time found there was no law against the relationship.

The English teacher, Gordon “Satch” Carlson, was also a Daily News and Autoweek columnist and the case regularly made headlines throughout 1990 and 1991. The Legislature amended the sexual abuse of a minor law in 1990 to make it a crime for a teacher, coach, youth leader or someone in a “substantially similar position” to engage in sexual activity with someone they are teaching or coaching and is under the age of 18.

That law became active on Sept. 19, 1990, according to state law library records. A substantially similar version remains on the books today.

Nikki White said she first met Sniffen in early 1991, when she joined the mock trial team at West Anchorage High School. The competitions involve students learning about the law and the judicial system by playing the roles of attorneys and witnesses. Some of the participating students were also involved in the debate team and Anchorage Youth Court, a separate nonprofit.

Sniffen advised the school’s mock trial team in 1990 and 1991. White said that meant the young attorney worked with her and other students about once a week leading up to the state competition. In May 1991, he traveled with them to the national competition in New Orleans.

Several of the high school students, now in their 40s, said they spent two nights in that city taking advantage of the lax enforcement of liquor laws.

“We found our way to Bourbon Street within the first, you know, probably four hours of arriving at the hotel,” said Christie, who is now an attorney in Anchorage.

“We were like kids in a candy store down there,” he said. “I remember being surprised we were able to go into bars and clubs. I remember guys selling 48-ounce hurricanes on the side of the street. There didn’t seem to be any enforcement whatsoever.”

A West Anchorage High School teacher, Gail Knutson, was on the trip as a chaperone but the students were able to slip out without her knowing, Gilmore and Christie said. At times, Sniffen, though a coach for the team, was with them, according to White, Gilmore and another teammate.

Knutson, in a recent phone interview, said she had no knowledge of White and Sniffen having a sexual encounter on the New Orleans trip. She said she also did not know the students had been out drinking.

The students had curfews and restrictions, she said, “But unless I slept in the hallway, people could come and go.”

Gilmore said that on one of the nights, the group was at a jazz club or bar and one of the other students nudged him to look at Sniffen and White sitting together.

“He had his arm around her and was kind of kneading her shoulder,” Gilmore said.

Nikki White

Photo courtesy Nikki Dougherty White

White, in a nearly two-hour interview over Zoom, described going out to eat a crawfish boil and drinking at bars with Sniffen and others.

“I do remember him putting his arm around me,” she said. “I remember him flirting with me. I remember him touching me on my upper thigh.”

White said Sniffen bought her a pina colada and hurricanes and paid for beers.

“I grew up in a very strict household. I probably up to that point had, like, two glasses of champagne and maybe two beers my entire life,” White said. “So I asked him for a virgin pina colada. And what he brought me later I found out was not virgin and he actually had an extra shot added.”

The group walked from Bourbon Street to the Hyatt, where the team was staying. Sniffen and the students were on the same floor, she said. Instead of going back to her room, she went to his room, White said.

In an account of the night that White wrote about two years later, at a time when she was considering telling the bar association about the relationship, she wrote that she leaned in and kissed Sniffen. She did not send the letter but kept it and shared it with the Daily News and ProPublica.

“And it escalated from there,” she said in the Zoom interview. The two had sex that night and the next, she said. “I remember him saying, you know: ‘I could lose my job for this. I can’t believe I’m doing this. You can’t tell anyone one ever.’”

Asked if the sex was consensual, White said, “Yes, with the caveat that I was drunk. I was 17. And he was in a position of authority.”

“I Heard He Had Inappropriate Contact”

Another member of the team who is now an Anchorage attorney, Matthew Block, said he did not go out drinking with the other students and did not see anything unusual between Sniffen and White. But upon returning to Anchorage and before the end of the school year, he heard something inappropriate happened involving Sniffen and White.

“There was something involving Ed, and Nikki said that something happened. And shortly after that, Ed left the mock trial program and wasn’t involved any more,” said Block, who later became an attorney coach for West Anchorage High School mock trial teams.

“I heard he had inappropriate contact in the sense that he was alone in a room with a female student,” Block said. Block said he had no knowledge of whether they had sex or not, and he said that he did not know that White moved in with Sniffen after graduation.

White said that she had sex with Sniffen a few times after returning from New Orleans and before she graduated. On her graduation night, she said, the couple went to a room at the Captain Cook where one of Sniffen’s friends worked and had sex in a room that the hotel employees were using to store baggage, she said.

White said Sniffen helped her obtain an apartment a few months after graduation by co-signing the lease but pretending to be her uncle to the landlord.

White provided copies of letters from two friends that year asking about her ongoing relationship with Sniffen.

“So how is Mr. Ed? Are you still together? Do your parents know?” wrote White’s childhood friend Ally Lattman in a letter dated June 9, 1991.

In a two-page timeline of events provided to the Daily News and ProPublica, White wrote that between May and October 1991 she sometimes went on dates with Sniffen in public but would take her seat first in the movie theater or at a concert, and he would join her after the lights went down to avoid being seen together.

White turned 18 in October and moved in with Sniffen, she said.

On public records from that time period, White and Sniffen both listed the same Taku/Campbell area address as their home address. White provided photos of a letter she received that was addressed to Sniffen’s home in 1992.

White said the relationship with Sniffen continued off and on for two or three years, but she eventually married a man she had dated before Sniffen, and Sniffen married another woman.

White’s parents declined to be interviewed. White said they moved to Southern California soon after she graduated and did not know about her relationship with Sniffen until recently, when she made the decision to go public. The parents, Mike and Mary Dougherty, provided a short statement by email:

“My wife and I agreed to let our then 17 year old daughter Nikki go on the school trip to New Orleans to participate in the National High School Mock Trial Tournament because we were led to believe that our daughter would be taken care of properly,” it read. “Through his actions, the chaperone, Attorney Ed Sniffen, violated that trust.”

Sniffen’s departure follows another high-profile resignation by an Alaska politician, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who quit office in October after admitting to an “inappropriate messaging relationship with a local television anchor and reporter.

White said she decided to make her allegations against Sniffen public after one of the other women who was on the high school trip forwarded her a news story about Clarkson’s resignation. “Look at the last line in this story,” the friend said. It was a reference to Clyde “Ed” Sniffen serving as Clarkson’s replacement.

Lindemuth, the former Alaska attorney general who promoted Sniffen, said the nature of the allegations against Sniffen gave him little choice but to step aside..

“The only thing he could have done is resign, and I would have done the same thing if such allegations were made against me.” Even if she thought the allegations were baseless, she said. “You just can’t be in charge of investigating yourself.”

Articles and Investigations – ProPublica