Former Alaska Governor Steve Cowper was interviewed by Bill Schneider and Karen Perdue with videography by Deborah Lawton and Michael Letzring of KUAC radio/tv, Fairbanks on April 25, 2008 at the Marriot Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska. He discusses his role in the mental health trust settlement. He first became familiar with mental health issues as District Attorney in Fairbanks, Alaska when he traveled around the state. He was the lawyer on the Vern Weiss case in 1982 and in 1986 became Governor of Alaska when the settlement case was being debated in the courts and between parts of the State government. He also talks about his friendship and experiences with John Malone.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Alaska Mental Health Trust History
Date of Interview: Apr 25, 2008
Narrator(s): Steve Cowper
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Karen Perdue
Videographer: Deborah Lawton , Michael Letzring
Transcriber: Carol McCue
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Section 1: Introduction to the interview and his being in Alaska for the tribute to John Malone hosted by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
Section 2: Personal background and upbringing.
Section 3: Getting a job as a traveling District Attorney, meeting John Malone, and early experiences with defendants and trials in rural Alaska.
Section 4: Praise for John Malone for his work as an Alaska State Trooper.
Section 5: The beginnings of Bethel Community Services, and how much John and Vicki Malone did for improving mental health treatment services.
Section 6: Working with John Malone, and how he became involved in the mental health trust lawsuit.
Section 7: The lengthy and costly court battle over the Weiss Case and settling of the mental health trust conflict.
Section 8: Why he became involved with the Weiss Case.
Section 9: The effects of the litigation battles on those who needed mental health assistance, and it being his last legal case before becoming Governor of Alaska.
Section 10: The importance of the Weiss case on his career and on the State, and actions of the State during the mental health trust litigation and settlement period.
Section 11: The State's abolishment of the original Mental Health Trust, and the ethical conflict he felt over the settlement when he was Governor because of his role as the original filing attorney on the case.
Section 12: How his commissioners handled the mental health trust settlement case, how the State was constrained by the litigation and court decisions, and the effectiveness of the plaintiffs' advocacy work.
Section 13: Contributors and obstructionists in the history of Alaska’s mental health trust settlement.
Section 14: Assessing the success of the mental health trust settlement, motivation behind and ramifications of the original litigation, and relationship between the mental health trust case and statehood.
Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.
After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
Section 1: BILL SCHNEIDER: April 25th, 2008. I'm Bill Schneider. We have the pleasure today, the KUAC crew is here, they are doing an interview with Governor Steve Cowper. And this is part of the interviews we've been doing in the series of the Mental Health Trust. So thanks for taking the time to ‑‑ to do this today. STEVE COWPER: Glad to do it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And I think by way of background, we ought to say that ‑‑ why you are up here on this particular trip. So we'll start with that. STEVE COWPER: Well, I'm ‑‑ I'm here to go to a tribute to John Malone that's being put on by the Mental Health Trust. And he's been with them, I believe, for 13 years, and it may be longer than that. But he's stepping down and this is a tribute to him and well deserved.
Section 2: BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. And we'll talk ‑‑ certainly we'll talk more about him as we go along here. But let's start by your ‑‑ talking a little bit about your personal background, where you were raised and a little bit about your folks.
STEVE COWPER: Well, I was from a little town in North Carolina, basically a tobacco town, and my dad was a road contractor. And I grew up in that little town and went to the University of North Carolina. And the time came when I wanted to go some other place, and so I headed for Alaska as quickly as I could.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What were some of the things that when you think back about your parents that ‑‑ that they instilled in you in the way of values? STEVE COWPER: Well, I think they ‑‑ they were people that ‑‑ that stood out for a lot of reasons. They were people that were modest and they didn't ‑‑ didn't drink, didn't smoke. And which I can't say I followed it. But ‑‑ and they were ‑‑ they were religious people and in a good sense.
And I think they probably instilled in me a knowledge of what was right and wrong. And sometimes I didn't ‑‑ didn't take well to that, but they certainly taught me a whole lot about life. And my dad, actually, he was a former college football player and he was a heavyweight wrestling champion of the entire South when he was in college. And he was a large physical specimen. I didn't ‑‑ you know, didn't hassle him.
And ‑‑ but he was in a very bad accident, automobile accident, when he was 49 years old, and I ‑‑ I'm pretty sure I would have gone into the contracting business with him had he not had that accident.
He was talking about starting a new company and going to Greenland, actually, and working at what I'm sure was, you know, the base up in the far north up there. And that sounded good to me. I couldn't wait to get to Greenland. But I had to wait awhile, as it turned out.
Section 3: BILL SCHNEIDER: Did you have some prospects when you came to Alaska or were you ‑‑ STEVE COWPER: No. BILL SCHNEIDER: ‑‑ just packed your bag and came? STEVE COWPER: No. I just packed my bag and I drove as far as I could drive and, you know, the road ran out and I got out and looked for work.
Actually, what happened was I got to Fairbanks and ‑‑ and Ed Boyko, who was the Attorney General at the time, just fired Jay Hodges, who was the District Attorney for ‑‑
I don't know if I ought to say this on television, but Jay had had a party which commemorated the ‑‑ the final closure of one of the hootchy‑kootchy bars downtown, you know, and ‑‑ and Jay went to it, and the Attorney General said that was not the right thing to do as ‑‑ as a dignified District Attorney, and they had words, and Jay lost, so out the door he went.
And then, of course, he became a very prominent and excellent judge there. But Jay was gone, and then Jim Blair, who was his assistant, resigned in protest, and so ‑‑ so I got Jim's job. It was lucky. Because it was one of the best jobs I ever had as the District Attorney. BILL SCHNEIDER: Why was that? STEVE COWPER: Well, it ‑‑ it was new. It was a new place, it was a new skill I had to learn.
It ‑‑ I had been a trial lawyer in the past for a couple of years, and ‑‑ but most notably, I was the only person in office that wasn't married, so they said, okay, you're the guy that goes on the road. So I had the opportunity when I was a District Attorney not only to try cases in Fairbanks, but I was the person who went to Barrow, Nome, Kotzebue, Bethel, and many of the roadside communities, as well, like Delta Junction, Tok. And I got to know Alaska that way, and particularly a lot of the Native people, which was a great experience.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Boy, I think that kind of leads into maybe meeting John. STEVE COWPER: Well, yeah. I met John in ‑‑ in Bethel in 1968, and it couldn't have been more than a couple of months after I showed up on the job. And he was the ‑‑ the only state trooper in that entire area it was probably as big as Montana or something.
And the state was so broke at the time that they couldn't really fly anybody around, so John had an airplane of his own, and he made a deal with them that if they paid for the gas, he'd use his plane. So we would go into the villages in John's plane and often, you know, take the defendant, whoever he was, if he was ‑‑ if he was in the ‑‑ in the jail in Bethel, we'd throw him in the plane and go off to the villages to try the case before the magistrate.
And it was quite a ‑‑ quite an education for me. I remember flying into Chevak with Nora Guinn and John and whoever the defendant was, and we were going into Chevak and started the trial and, you know, a number of people there in the jury pool, and we began to realize there's not a person in the whole room could speak English. I mean, we got around that because, of course, Nora was bilingual and everything. But it was ‑‑ it was ‑‑ it was new to me. And ‑‑ but it was a privilege.
I know one time John and I were ‑‑ were working a murder case in Hooper Bay out on the coast, and of course, there's a book about Hooper Bay shamans, which I still have. And a woman ‑‑ there were two men and a woman in a cabin, and when they walked out, one of the ‑‑ one of the men was dead.
Now, one of the ‑‑ it was either the woman or the other, boy he was, that shot the guy because they were the only ones in the room. And we were pretty sure it was the woman. And ‑‑ but the boy wouldn't say anything. And John, you know, finally got him to say, okay, you know, the woman did it.
And the woman put a hex on the boy. This is a boy, you know, 18 years old or something, put a hex on the boy right in front of John. And the boy went out on a fishing boat and fell off and drowned, like two days later. And, of course, the case was over. That was it.
Section 4: But interesting experiences, you know, I'd say. And of course, when I was traveling out there, I was more or less living on per diem, state per diem, and when I'd go to ‑‑ to the ‑‑ these rural towns, rural centers, I'd always stay with the state trooper. And so I got to know those guys all over the state. And they became the best friends I ever had. And particularly John. So...
BILL SCHNEIDER: What are some of the things you learned from John? STEVE COWPER: Well, John knew how to deal with his job better than ‑‑ I think it's fair to say better than any trooper I ever met, particularly in a rural area.
I mean, I've seen him get ‑‑ get into situations where I wanted to jump under the car, and, I mean, brandishing of firearms and stuff like that, John would just say, no, no, no, put the gun away. You're not going to do anything. Come on, give me the gun, I'll give you a ride back, you know. Never raised his voice. Very calm.
Of course, I think everybody in there knew that John was a ‑‑ the pistol shooting champion of the entire U.S. Army. So maybe that had a little something to do with it, I don't know. But he had a sixth sense about what to do. And he won the outstanding trooper award for the state in that period of time. So he ‑‑ he taught me a lot. And we had some great experiences, too.
And then he went, I think ‑‑ I think he went back to college and got his college degree in about 1970, and I was in Vietnam as a newspaper reporter that year, and I came back and, you know, went out to Bethel, and he had married Vicki by then. And he's ‑‑ he had ‑‑ didn't go back to police work.
Section 5: And one of the first things we did was to start the Bethel Social Services . It was a nonprofit corporation, and I drew up the legal papers and I was on the board of it. And part of what Bethel Social Services did was to run a boarding home for ‑‑ for people who were mentally handicapped in the Bethel area.
And I stayed there quite often through the years, and I ‑‑ I was really impressed. I mean, it was ‑‑ the way they ran it. It was a real home. And all the people who were residents there, they ‑‑ they all seemed happy and they knew they were in a group and they knew people cared for them. And John and Vicki lived basically in the same building in a separate apartment.
And that was really the first ‑‑ the first time I had gotten familiar with ‑‑ with what mental health treatment actually was. Before that you thought, okay, mental health, that's API, you know. They either put you in there or they didn't.
And then the rules were liberalized so that that's not automatically what happened to people if they were ‑‑ had mental problems, you didn't just put them in API. And I think that John and Vicki basically showed the way to ‑‑ that those group homes ought to be run. I was impressed.
Section 6: BILL SCHNEIDER: Back in those ‑‑ those early days when you were actually staying out there, you had a chance to see him operate in the community. What are some of the things you learned from him about that? STEVE COWPER: Well, he ‑‑ he was ‑‑ he was able to ‑‑ to interact with ‑‑ with the Yup'ik community out there without being ‑‑ without being patronizing or condescending. There was an art to that. There truly was.
And he had several businesses. We were the owner ‑‑ the part ‑‑ I was part owner of a ‑‑ of a company called Bushmaster Air Alaska, and I contributed the last Ford tri‑motor, I think, that was operative in the United States and J. B. Harrelson who is an Eskimo pilot, he was part of it. So we had that.
And then we had a ‑‑ we had a kind of a shack on the river there that we would dispatch the airplanes out of, Dorothy Hopman ran it, and I had a law office in there, too, you know. And people would come in and they ‑‑ she would say, well, do you want to fly or do you want a lawyer? And so I had a law office out there in that building for some years.
Finally, the building fell in the water. That was before the years of the ‑‑ you know, before the ‑‑ the wall out there was built. It was a nice place, but you know, down it went downriver. Then we did a little mining together and a lot of other stuff. But John was a ‑‑ he had an insurance agency that ‑‑ that he operated, as well, out there.
He just kept up with what was going on and he knew who needed what. And of course, he was very close to Bruce and Lucy Crow and their children. And he just kind of knew what was going on, on the ‑‑ on the YK Delta.
BILL SCHNEIDER: When we think about John, we think about him as ‑‑ as being involved in the Mental Health Trust throughout the process? STEVE COWPER: He was. We ‑‑ he had a sixth sense about ‑‑ about mental health and what needed to be done. Mental health is just a word, you know. I mean, the important thing is to do the right thing for the ‑‑ for the people that need that needed treatment, if that's the right word for it.
And he studied a whole lot. He had a lot of books. I think his degree was in psychology. And he ‑‑ but he had a sixth sense about what really needed to be done. He'd cut through all the, you know, fancy talk and get to what needed to be done right away.
And you know, by 1982, I had finished an unsuccessful run for Governor in 1982, I lost by a couple hundred votes, actually. And a psychologist in Fairbanks came to me and explained what had happened with the ‑‑ the Mental Health Trust, those lands. And I had heard about it but it just, you know, kind of went over my head.
I actually voted on a couple of bills that ‑‑ that were related to it, but I was more focusing on other areas at the time. And I start ‑‑ and then Vern Weiss was introduced to me by this ‑‑ this psychologist whose name I unfortunately have lost out there somewhere, and I talked to Vern, and it seemed clear to me that the state had basically deprived his son Carl of adequate treatment.
And the reason they had done that is that the U.S. Congress, back before statehood, had awarded this ‑‑ the territory a million acres of land to support of a mental health program. They hadn't really chosen the land by the time statehood came around, and then it was just kind of subsumed by state government, and finally, the legislature just abolished the whole thing.
And I looked at that and I thought, well, wait a minute, there's something wrong here. You know, they can't just abolish this. Come on. And I did some ‑‑ some homework, and I told ‑‑ I told Vern that I would be happy to take the case and ‑‑ and if I won, I would get some state‑awarded attorney's fees, and that I would basically finance it.
So I ‑‑ I filed a suit, and the state, of course, they didn't ‑‑ they didn't agree with my legal premise, and however, we ‑‑ we prevailed both in the Superior Court and later on in the Supreme Court.
Section 7: There was a point in there somewhere during the litigation that a group from Anchorage had joined to ‑‑ to kind of help me with the ‑‑ with the expenses there, Jim Gottstein was part of that group. And so I ‑‑ you know, I took, I think, half of the expenses from them. That was a help to me.
And then we got crosswise. Mr. Gottstein didn't agree with my legal strategy, and I can't really give you the details on it, but they ‑‑ they got very incensed about the matter, so I sent them the money back and told them I didn't want to represent them anymore.
And then I went ahead and got the case won ‑‑ the principles of the case won in the Supreme Court. And then, of course, there were a lot of details that had to be ‑‑ had to be worked out. And Mr. Gottstein then intervened, and I gave my case to another fellow, I believe, from Juneau, and I can't remember his name either.
And once the case was won, then Mr. Gottstein and the ‑‑ the other lawyer just fought each other until the end of time over every tiny detail about it. They ‑‑ and the state had agreed to pay their lawyer's fees, and I ‑‑ you know, I don't want to say anything bad about them one way or the other, but they made an awful lot of money fighting with each other while people who needed the help were, you know, out there waiting for something to happen.
And I think in the end, of course, and by then, I had ‑‑ by the time all that fighting was going on, I had actually won the election, I couldn't very well be suing myself, so I gave the ‑‑ you know, gave ‑‑ turned the case over to this other guy.
And there was just ‑‑ just litigation after litigation. And they couldn't agree on anything. And they fought over this and they fought over that. And it ‑‑ I think the State spent several million dollars paying their lawyers' fees.
And my ‑‑ my memory for the details are not as sharp as they once were, but my strong impression is that finally John just ‑‑ who had been appointed to the first Mental Health Board, and John just finally said, look, you people have got to stop this, and we're going to ‑‑ we're going to, you know, I think, maybe go to ‑‑ I don't remember how it was settled, and those people were sent on their way, but it took a long time and a lot of money.
And it was one of the difficulties that ‑‑ that the mental trust had ‑‑ Mental Health Trust had when it first started.
Section 8: But John was ‑‑ was really, to me, the ‑‑ the institutional memory for the Mental Health Trust, and knew where I was coming from. And you know, I'd call him all the time and ask him what I ought to be doing here. And he was ‑‑ he was the institutional memory, to me, he was really the leader of the whole ‑‑ the whole Mental Health Trust. Sometimes he was the chairman, sometimes he wasn't, but to me, he was the leader.
BILL SCHNEIDER: In terms of philosophy, would ‑‑ why was it appealing for you to take on the Weiss case? STEVE COWPER: Well, it ‑‑ it ‑‑ somebody had committed a wrong and I could ‑‑ I could do something about it. I mean, that's all it ‑‑ it's just that easy. It's kind of what I did for him.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And so you just went and knocked on his door and said ‑‑ STEVE COWPER: No, no, no. That's not ‑‑ you can't ‑‑ couldn't do that in those days. Nowadays I think you can do anything. You know, you can sign up people at the hospital, but then you couldn't do it. No. He was introduced to me through the psychologist in Fairbanks, who had said that he was looking for an attorney who might take the case. BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay.
STEVE COWPER: And I talked to him and I said, yeah, I'll take it, I think I can win it. And it's justified. BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh‑hum. STEVE COWPER: It's something that needs to be done. So that's ‑‑ I kind of did things like that when I was a lawyer.
Section 9: BILL SCHNEIDER: In terms of philosophy, in general terms, what was your disagreement with ‑‑ with Gottstein and that group? STEVE COWPER: Well, the details allude me. It's been over 25 years. BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay.
STEVE COWPER: But ‑‑ but my strong impression was that Mr. Gottstein thought that ‑‑ that every single ‑‑ every single detail had to be fought to the bitter end, that there was every possible ‑‑ every possible allegation had to be pursued out to the ‑‑ until it was finally determined and there was no place else to go.
Well, zealous representation is what the term is. To me, it was more important to get the thing into ‑‑ into operation and get the people who were affected by inadequate funding of mental health services, get them in the system and taken care of; and specifically, my client, Carl Weiss, who was Vern's son.
I mean, he didn't ‑‑ it didn't do him any good for those lawyers to be fighting with each other for 5 or 6 years. Didn't do him a bit of good. And so ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: And it sounds like you've had some good background on the ground to know something about the issue.
STEVE COWPER: Well ‑‑ well, yeah. I mean, I knew what it was from Carl's standpoint, which is, of course, he's the person that I represented. I think I made a mistake in the litigation by turning it into a class action, in retrospect, because that allowed people like Gottstein to get involved in it.
And anybody else that wanted to, who thought they had something to say. But in retrospect, I should have just kept it to the one guy because once I had established that the legislature wrongfully revoked the Mental Health Trust, that would have carried the day.
BILL SCHNEIDER: When you say that would have carried the day, in terms of precedent and in terms of the settlement? STEVE COWPER: Well, I think that ‑‑ at that ‑‑ yeah, sure, it set a precedent, and at that point, the legislature obviously had to fill out the details. They had to create the trust itself, which they ultimately did, and they would have had to determine what rules would govern the land selections, which they did ultimately, and how it would be administered.
And ‑‑ and how it would be juxtaposed with the existing mental health funding mechanism. So ‑‑ but it took too long to do it. And to me, the issues that those two lawyers were battling over was far less important than getting the ‑‑ the mental health requirements and treatment to the people that were affected.
BILL SCHNEIDER: After that case, after you got off that case, did you re-enter that area at all in your legal work? STEVE COWPER: Well, I didn't have any legal work after I stopped being Governor. That was the end of that. BILL SCHNEIDER: That was the end? STEVE COWPER: But I think it was. I think that was the end of it anyway. But so basically, that was kind of my last hoorah as a private lawyer was the Mental Health Trust case.
Section 10: BILL SCHNEIDER: And I guess that leads to the question, as you look back on your career, how does this case compare in significance, in your mind, with your other legal activities and your actions as Governor?
STEVE COWPER: Well, I can't speak for the actions as Governor because, of course, that's not a one‑man show. You know, everybody else -- you've got a legislature out there doing stuff, and staff, but litigation is a one‑person show, pretty much. And to me, it was by far the most significant and important litigation that I ever had anything to do with.
And I did have quite a number of important cases in my day, but it was ‑‑ it was the most important and the most significant by any measure. BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. So the ‑‑ as a follow‑up to what you just said, the question is, why ‑‑ why was this so significant to you? In terms of your career.
STEVE COWPER: Well ‑‑ well, it ‑‑ it ‑‑ it was a ‑‑ a decision that ‑‑ that not only was important from the standpoint of public policy, but it also involved a lot of land and a lot of money. Less significant than the ‑‑ than the adequacy of the treatment of people who needed mental health treatment, less significant than that, but still a million acres of land, even in Alaska 20 years ago, that's a lot of value that you're talking about. And it goes for an appropriate purpose.
So it had ‑‑ it had importance both from the standpoint of public policy and in terms of the value of the assets that were involved in the entire transaction. BILL SCHNEIDER: And then why didn't the State follow through in a timely manner?
STEVE COWPER: Well, you ‑‑ you have to remember that it was still in court all this time. And the State couldn't really do anything until the litigation was finished. It wasn't ‑‑ I mean, there were certain things you could do. Certainly you could form the ‑‑ the Mental Health Trust, which I believe was done in my time, I believe. And ‑‑ and you could make some rules, some procedural rules and that sort of thing, but as long as the lawyers were bashing away in court and there was no final judgment in the case, you really couldn't move forward as ‑‑ as should have been done.
So the important thing was to shut all the litigation down. I mean, and my recollection is that John took a very firm hand there. And I don't know if, you know, he reminded them that he had been the pistol champion in the Army or not, but you know, after awhile, after awhile that ‑‑ they shut it down. And so I think it had to be done. I don't know how long they would have litigated, but it had to be ‑‑ it had to be closed down.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, yeah. Some people would argue that the ‑‑ expanding the range of beneficiaries was a ‑‑ was a good process that Judge Greene championed, and that that took time and struggle.
STEVE COWPER: Well, I ‑‑ I don't ‑‑ I mean, I don't think you have to resort to ‑‑ to combative litigation to make those kinds of decisions. I mean, they are the kinds of decisions that could ‑‑ should appropriately be made by either the Trust itself or by the government. I don't think you have to resort to endless litigation to answer questions like that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And I guess back to what you said earlier, if it had been a single case, the Weiss case, it might ‑‑ we might not have had that. STEVE COWPER: We'll never know. I thought it was wise at the time to make a class action out of it. Arguably, the state, if they had opposed the motion to make it a class action, arguably, they would have won. But they didn't. They didn't oppose it. And so I blame them, too.
Section 11: KAREN PERDUE: My question was about the first time around, you know, when they first ‑‑ when the State first was supposed to follow through. STEVE COWPER: Oh. BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. So in the beginning, how come the State didn't follow through? STEVE COWPER: Well, I ‑‑ I think the people ‑‑ that most of the state legislators, and I was in the legislature at the time, just felt like, well, this is something that happened in the statehood, and ‑‑ and never was ‑‑ never was very much follow‑through to it.
And we became a state very soon thereafter. I think that was in 1958, but I may be wrong. So we became a state, and then we assumed the duty of ‑‑ of, you know, taking care of mental health services through revenues that were available to the government. And nobody really raised the question until about 1977 or '78, as I recall. And then the ‑‑ the Hammond administration put in a bill basically to abolish it.
And you know, I kind of looked at that and as I say, I was involved in other things, the appropriate level of taxation in the oil industry, for one thing, and I thought, well, they can't do this. They can't ‑‑ they can't revoke a Federal Statute. And I voted against it, and then ‑‑ then I think it came around in another guise, and I didn't realize it had been tacked on another bill, and I ‑‑ and voted for it. So then I could say I went both ways.
But I remember I didn't really think about it very much except when it ‑‑ when it came through, I thought, well, wait. The State can't ‑‑ can't revoke a federal law, but ‑‑ but then I didn't give it any further thought until 1982.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So just backing up a minute, the lawyer who took over the case from you, what was his name? STEVE COWPER: His name was David Walker. I had originally taken it to Bill Counsel (phonetic), who was a friend of mine who lived in Juneau at the time, and Bill looked at it and said, nah, I don't think so. And then I talked to David and he agreed to take it. And this was right before I went into office. And so I had to do ‑‑ it had to be turned over to some responsible attorney. And ‑‑ and I think David was.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh‑hum. Why, in your estimation, didn't we get a settlement of the Mental Health Trust suit during your administration as Governor? STEVE COWPER: Well, it ‑‑ the part of the problem was the continued litigation. I know that. And my memory is not ‑‑ is not very good as to the details as to what was done during my time in office.
I actually ‑‑ I think the Mental Health Trust was formed during my time, but beyond that, I ‑‑ I don't know. I know part of the, of the situation was ‑‑ was the on-going litigation. And ‑‑ and honestly, it's a little ‑‑ it would have been a little improper for me to come in and ‑‑ and take too ‑‑ too high a profile a part in that because I had been the lawyer, you know, and that doesn't look good.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, that's ‑‑ that's what John had said in his interview, that you were constrained by the fact that you had represented the case in the beginning, but is that your position as you look back at it now?
STEVE COWPER: Well, there's certain constraints, it would have ‑‑ would have probably been unethical for me to do that, but I think as I recall it, and I may be in error here because it's been a long time, and I had a lot of details I was dealing with in other areas at the time, but as I recall, the problem was ‑‑ was that the litigation just was going on and on and on.
And Judge Greene, of course, had it for many ‑‑ for several years. And I don't ‑‑ that's all I can remember about it, to tell you the truth. BILL SCHNEIDER: Why would it have been unethical?
STEVE COWPER: Well, it was ‑‑ it was not an issue that ‑‑ that I wanted to ‑‑ to ‑‑ I mean, people knew that I was the one that brought the Mental Health Trust, and for me to come in while litigation was still going on and say ‑‑ and say, okay, here's the stuff that ‑‑ that I want to do, no, I don't think it would have been appropriate. Now, I did have private conversations, people who were working in the administration could have done different things, but I ‑‑ I think it would have been inappropriate for me to take a high profile position in it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. I've wondered why Myra Munson didn't push harder. STEVE COWPER: Well, I don't know, because it's ‑‑ it's been so ‑‑ so long ago, that ‑‑ I mean, if you ‑‑ if you had the information that you had then, you could answer the question in a fairly ‑‑ fairly specific way, but now that it's been 20 years or whatever it's been, it's ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: So ‑‑ STEVE COWPER: ‑‑ it's not available to me.
Section 12: BILL SCHNEIDER: Do you have an opinion as to how your commissioners handled this? Do you – STEVE COWPER: Well, actually, I don't ‑‑ I don't remember. I mean, Myra was an excellent commissioner, I can tell you that. And it might well be that the rules that were ‑‑ that were laid down by the court just weren't complete enough for ‑‑ for my administration to do anything significant about it.
We ‑‑ we had brought this in, obviously, it was brought in court and had gone to the Supreme Court, and at that point, those rules were ‑‑ were what ‑‑ what ruled the case. Part of it is, of course, that they were still ruling on what the State could do under a federal law. Because we were sitting in ‑‑ in Juneau, there's nothing we could do to ‑‑ to change the federal law. We had no power to do that. That's what the Supreme Court said.
And so the question was being decided by a judge, what is permissible under the federal law by which the Mental Health Trust was created? What is permissible? What can you do? What are you required to do? What can you do? And it wasn't up to the legislature to decide. So I'm kind of thinking that was what ‑‑ that was the main constraint on what we could do under the ‑‑ you know, at that ‑‑ at that point in time.
BILL SCHNEIDER: How effective do you think the plaintiffs were in getting the state to address the breach of the trust? STEVE COWPER: I ‑‑ I don't ‑‑ you may ‑‑ by "plaintiffs," do you mean ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: The people that were supporting the beneficiaries, people like George Rogers and people like that. STEVE COWPER: Well ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: Or people like John who were down there.
STEVE COWPER: Right. Right. No. I think ‑‑ I think they were ‑‑ they were very effective. I mean, I think they were. Yeah. You reminded me that George Rogers was part of that, as well. He's a strong advocate no matter what he's doing.
So I mean, it was up to the trust to serve as advocates for the people they represented. But it's a difficult thing for the legislature to do because that question of what they could do under a federal statute had to be decided by a court, and they were still litigating.
Section 13: BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, when we ‑‑ when you look at this chapter of Alaskan history, who are the individuals who we should single out as having made a major contribution? STEVE COWPER: I would sure hesitate to answer that question. Certainly John Malone. There were other people who ‑‑ whose names I knew at that time, and who certainly made major contributions.
There's an attorney that I know of who just ‑‑ now his name has escaped me, who really did a lot of work. And ‑‑ and honestly, when that was going on, I wasn't watching that in detail. I was doing a lot of ‑‑ a lot of other things. But there were people who ‑‑ who were very dedicated to making sure that people who needed appropriate mental health treatment got it. And they did a ‑‑ they did a good job.
I mean, John is obviously the one that I would single out, but there were ‑‑ there were lots of other folks. And as sure as I mention 2 or 3, there's 8 or 10 I should have mentioned, and I ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: That's the problem with a question like that. STEVE COWPER: Yeah, well, it is. BILL SCHNEIDER: And you have mentioned some of the individuals who, in your estimation, were obstructionists. STEVE COWPER: Well, I ‑‑ I mean, more ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: Well meaning, but that ‑‑
STEVE COWPER: ‑‑ people's motives are beyond me. Human motivation is pretty complex. But I know that the litigation over every ‑‑ every tiny detail was not helpful in terms of the ‑‑ of the ultimate purpose of the ‑‑ of the lawsuit.
Section 14: BILL SCHNEIDER: I just have one other question, I think then Karen has one, too. But how do you think the trust settlement has worked out here sitting where we are today? STEVE COWPER: I don't think I can answer that question. I have been away for a long time. I don't watch Alaska politics or government in any detail. I really can't answer the question. I have the feeling that it's ‑‑ that it's functioning the way that it should, but I can't really give you any detail on that. KAREN PERDUE: That was my question. STEVE COWPER: Oh, yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. And what did we miss that we should put down on the record? STEVE COWPER: I'm not going there. BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. STEVE COWPER: I always ‑‑ I always get in trouble when you people ask me questions like that. BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let me ‑‑ let me ‑‑ STEVE COWPER: Just like Obama. BILL SCHNEIDER: We should ask a statehood question, too, in case it could help you.
KAREN PERDUE: Let me just reminisce about one question, and that is, Steve, when you were ‑‑ when you were filing this case and you were thinking about the ramifications or, you know, basically they had to reconstitute all the land, knowing where all those selections were, in our municipalities and such. STEVE COWPER: Uh‑hum. KAREN PERDUE: You really weighed that, I'm sure, in your mind. STEVE COWPER: No, I didn't. I didn't care what they had to do. KAREN PERDUE: If you could tell me ‑‑ BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. The question is, it must have ‑‑ you must have ‑‑ you must have been thinking about all these municipalities and the loss of this land and ‑‑ and how that was going to be resolved.
STEVE COWPER: Well, I did, but I thought, well, that's not my problem, nor is it the Mental Health Trust's problem. Somebody's got to sort out all that stuff, but the principle underlying the litigation was sound and it had to be done no matter how much troubling it caused. BILL SCHNEIDER: Or how much time it took? STEVE COWPER: Or how much time it took. BILL SCHNEIDER: Hmm. Do you have any regrets that it wasn't settled during your administration?
STEVE COWPER: No. I ‑‑ I don't ‑‑ it would have been nice to have it done earlier. I ‑‑ I remember that the Supreme Court decision came down, I believe, right before I took office. I know that because I finally got the court‑awarded attorney's fees just in time to spend it on some television ads.
But the ‑‑ so ‑‑ so the details and the ‑‑ and the ‑‑ the arguments and the discussions over the detailed didn't start until I was actually in office. And maybe it could be said, well, you know, it's too bad it didn't get straightened out right away, but remember, this is a million acres of land. There were statements that the land was worth over a billion dollars, which, you know, was a lot of money in those days.
And any time you've got ‑‑ you've got assets of that ‑‑ with that kind of value, and nobody knows exactly what to do with them, you know that there's going to be disagreements and that it's going to take a long time to sort it out. It's understandable; you don't have to like it that it took so long, but it's certainly understandable.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. One final question that we've been asking people, Karen Perdue has described the ‑‑ the history of the Mental Health Trust as a civil rights story. What do you think? How would you typify it?
STEVE COWPER: Well, I don't know if I'd use the word civil rights. I mean, obviously, there was a group of people that were meant to benefit from a congressional act, a very generous congressional act, and they were not getting the full value of what they should have ‑‑ should have gotten.
To me, that's what litigation is all about. Somebody's done something wrong to somebody else and you go in there and fight it out. And that's the way I looked at it. BILL SCHNEIDER: And how does it fit in with statehood and how we would view the history of statehood?
STEVE COWPER: Well, of course, the ‑‑ the trust itself preceded statehood. And at the time, my strong impression was that the Congress was not looking at making Alaska a state any time soon. And so they probably thought, well, look, you know, here we've got this big territory out here, and the only thing they can do is send people down to Oregon for treatment, and that's not right, they've got all that land, they've got a lot of resources, let's give them some land.
They can have their own mental health program. That's what they did. And statehood, I think, probably took everybody's eyes off that particular ball. You know, statehood was a big thing. And I would imagine that the people who were the leaders in early statehood probably said, look, this is ‑‑ this is a ‑‑ something we can do.
And they ‑‑ I have no idea whether all of them even knew that the Mental Health Trust was there. They may have thought that statehood ‑‑ Statehood Act abolished it. Don't know. I wasn't there. But certainly, you know, statehood brought a ‑‑ brought a stop to whatever proceedings were based on, you know, the original land grant.