Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
With pressure mounting over Rodell firing, Dunleavy throws a tantrum over coverage
When the Legislature is looking for some certainty that the state’s golden goose is in good hands, deflection and projection isn’t a great strategy.
Good evening, Alaska!
In this edition: The legislative session hasn’t even started and things are already going pretty much as you’d expect. The Legislative Council is keeping its covid-19 mitigation measures in place to the chagrin of Sen. Lora Reinbold; Dunleavy attacked the press for not dropping questions over the firing of Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation executive director Angela Rodell; The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee got off to a hot start with a no-nonsense hearing on the Rodell firing.
Days until the legislative session: 1
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The governor doth protest too much, methinks
Gov. Mike Dunleavy held the usual pre-session news conference this afternoon that was complete with a brazenly confident misunderstanding of MLK Jr.’s message, an outline of all the legislative priorities that the Legislature will likely ignore (which includes funding for purging voting rolls) and a reaffirmation that he would not sign an income tax bill in the unlikely event that the Legislature passes one. It would be utterly unremarkable in the normal course of things if not for the close of the news conference that was, frankly, a whiny attack on the Anchorage Daily News that accused the state’s largest news outlet of fabricating stories to undermine him heading into his re-election year.
“I’m just wondering if we're going to get a fair shake during this campaign season or if the ADN is going to be a campaign arm for campaigns that are occurring,” he mused about the paper, which is owned by the children of John Binkley… who chaired the independent expenditure group opposing Dunleavy’s recall. “I think what the people really want is accuracy, facts. If they want to read stories, they read novels, they read harlequin romances, they watch comedies.”
The only specific grievance the governor could muster during the presser is the accusation that the ADN omitted the political background of the legal team that’s bringing the lawsuit over his efforts to sweep the state’s Higher Education Investment Fund, which funds state scholarships and WAAMI. And as things tend to go with easily checkable claims like that, former House Majority spokesman/legislative reporter Austin Baird took to twitter to show it was patently false.
Of course, the governor’s grievances are not so much to do with the political leanings of a legal team, but the Anchorage Daily News’ reporters refusal to look the other way on the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation’s abrupt and still-unexplained firing of executive director Angela Rodell, refusal to take the administration’s word for it that Dunleavy had no involvement or knowledge in the firing, refusal to ignore the administration’s largely unprecedented direction to make Rodell’s personnel file public and, also, their refusal ignore the fact that the administration has refused to make the personnel file of Attorney General Kevin Clarkson—who resigned in 2020 after sexually harassing a state employee—public.
It was that last question, asked by Pulitzer Prize-winning ADN reporter Kyle Hopkins, that seemed to truly agitate the governor, who responded by waving away the concerns that the handling of the personnel file was politically motivated and directing his press flacks to cut Hopkins off altogether. But even then, none of that adds up to the kind of tantrum Dunleavy was putting on.
What’s really the problem is that the ADN is the hosting platform for Andrew Halcro’s “With All Due Respect” podcast that has truly turned up the heat on the entire Rodell situation in recent weeks, including disclosing that one of the commissioners on the board was reportedly overheard saying “it was my vote or my job” and again today with an episode today that named Dunleavy special assistant Brandon Brefczynski as the key coordinator between the administration and the Board of Trustees on the firing, the subsequent messaging and, apparently, in the cover up.
Why it matters: Gov. Dunleavy’s hostility towards the press shouldn’t be all that surprising. Between his time in the Legislature and as a governor, Dunleavy has proved time and again just how thin his skin is when it comes to criticism. It’s almost like living life from 6’7” vantage would give someone an unwarranted superiority complex that collapses upon the slightest hint of pushback. But it’s the hyper-aggressive attacks on the press, which is doing its duty to hold the administration accountable for its actions, that suggests there is reason to keep digging.
Lots of questions, few answers
Of course, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that Dunleavy’s temper tantrum came to a close 30 minutes before Craig Richards, a Dunleavy ally and the chair of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s Board of Trustees, took the hot seat in front of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee to answer questions about Rodell’s firing. The legislators on the committee apparently didn’t get Dunleavy’s memo about the lying press because they quickly got to work in questioning Richards over the board’s handling of the firing, handling of the fund, the growing political influence over the fund, the future of the fund and the trust in the Board of Trustees.
If Richard’s job was to instill confidence that the fund is in good hands, he fell well short. Most of the questions were answered with blanket refusals, claiming that anything of interest in explaining why the board decided to split with an executive director who had just posted several exemplary years of returns was confidential. His response to questions about why they’d fire a successful executive director was to suddenly argue that Rodell had no hand in the fund’s success. His only real explanation was to direct the legislators to watch the board’s meeting in Kodiak where there was, in his words, “visible tension” between Rodell and the board. This would be the hearing where Department of Revenue Commissioner Lucinda Mahoney suggested cutting investor pay in light of a dividend below what Dunleavy had sought.
But, no, politics did not play a part in the soured relations, Richards claimed.
To the board, the whole thing reeked, which was a point echoed by both Anchorage Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz and Republican Senate President Peter Micciche. They both said that even setting aside the firing, there’s big concerns that politics is starting to influence the board’s investment decisions and, therefore, potentially undermining future performance. The best response that Richards could mount was to dismiss their claims as unfounded, to stand behind the fact that the executive director is an at-will position and therefore can be terminated for any reason regardless of their performance (which might lead us to question the Board of Trustee’s wisdom in managing the fund if they’re gonna let personal grudges guide decisions), and then to accuse legislators of playing politics and politicizing the fund.
“It’s pretty apparent that we have the right to do it,” Richards said at one point. “To me what it seems is Ms. Rodell is popular and she’s making a lot of hay and that's getting a response and feedback.”
What didn’t sit particularly well with the legislators is the board’s efforts to study what overdrawing the fund—according to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan to get a bigger PFD payout—would mean for the future of the fund. If the board was committed to sticking by the spending rules, then why was it spending so much time and money investigating the fund’s potential to overspend? Richards couldn’t say.
If his job was to at least cool the heat on the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, the trustees and Gov. Dunleavy, Richards also fell well short. He was frequently condescending to legislators, claiming broad protection against any inquiry about the decision-making that led into the decision. His attack on Rodell’s character is also not likely to be appreciated by legislators who’ve generally had a good working relationship with her. He also wildly claimed that the longer the Legislature looks into what happened, the more the fund will be distracted and unable to perform. Much of what he did offer, only raised more questions than answers.
“Have you at any point in the last six months had any conversations with any members of the governor's office about Ms. Rodell's role at the Permanent Fund, either by phone or by text?” asked Rep. Spohnholz.
“I think I was pretty clear that I'm not going to go into the specifics of the interactions, communications and decisions that led to Ms. Rodell's firing,” Richards responded. “I don't think it's appropriate.”
“Alright,” Spohnholz replied, “I'll take that as a yes.”
During the questioning, Richards seemed to suggest that the board will take strides to put less stuff down in writing as it creates a record that can be dug into later.
At one point, Richards simply asked that they drop the whole thing.
“What’s best for the fund is to move on,” he said.
The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee does not, in fact, plan to “move on.”
Chair Sen. Natasha von Imhof—who delivered a particularly scathing line asking Richards “Now that she's out of the way, are you going to apply for the job?” (No)—said the committee plans to continue its review of the firing and may request additional documents and additional hearings with trustees. The committee has not yet invoked its audit and subpoena powers, but those are certainly on the table.
Why it matters: When the Legislature is looking for some certainty that the state’s golden goose is in good hands, deflection and projection isn’t a great strategy.
Masks, testing mandatory
With the Omicron surge in mind, the Legislative Council rejected a pair of proposal that would made mandatory masking in shared spaces and regular covid-19 testing required for legislators and legislative staff. The pair of votes maintain the capitol’s mitigation efforts that were in place since the last legislative session.
“It seems like absolutely the wrong time to do this,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. “Maybe later, if things change, but not now.”
Even Rep. Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat who’s been generally opposed to mandatory masking, said he’d rather take some minor precautions to keep the building open to the public and legislative business running.
“What’s going to happen to our session if we ended up with such an outbreak?” Tuck said. “I made it through covid this last October but it’s not to say that if omicron does hit pretty hard here at the capitol many of our staff and many of our legislators are going to probably be crippled from doing their business.”
Others noted that while legislators may be willing to take individual risks, such as holding mask-less meeting legislators’ offices (where the rules don’t reach) or socializing outside of the capitol, they shouldn’t be putting legislative staff in a risky position at their workplace. Several also noted that the council could revisit things when cases decline and the risk goes down.
Sen. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, and Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, were the strongest proponents for rolling back the rules. Reinbold infamously feuded with the Legislature’s covid-19 precautions last year, was temporarily excluded from regular Senate business and was ultimately banned from flying on Alaska Airlines. Reinbold said she believed everyone in the Legislature is either already vaccinated or already had covid-19. Tilton questioned whether there really is any science supporting masks (when presented with such evidence at the council’s last meeting by a trusted epidemiologist, she told them it was just their opinion).
Ultimately only Reinbold, Tilton and Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, voted in favor of repealing the masking mandate. Voting against the repeal were Reps. Claman, Edgmon, Foster, Stutes, Tuck and Hannan as well as Sens. Bishop, Hoffman, Stedman and Stevens.
Things were a little more contentious when it came to rolling back the building’s mandate that legislators and legislative staff are tested every four days. Tuck joined the Reinbold, Tilton and Micciche in voting for the repeal of the testing, arguing that masking and mutual trust ought to be sufficient protections.
Reinbold said the testing requirement—which she refused to follow during last year’s session, one of the factors that led to her exclusion to the Senate—was “completely unjustified from a scientific, from a medical, from a reasonable and from a legal perspective.”
At that point, patience was already wearing thin with Reinbold. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, noted Reinbold could just invoke her constitutional right to attend session and ignore the rules… just like she’s already been doing.
“Nobody here expects Sen. Reinbold to do any testing. We expect her to exercise her constitutional rights and enter the building in any way she wants,” he said. “It’s time to vote. If she’s got the votes, she’s got the votes and if not, she doesn’t. Let’s move on.”
The committee voted to reject the testing proposal on a 9N-4Y margin.
The Legislative Council also voted 12-1 to file an amicus brief in the lawsuit challenging Gov. Dunleavy’s decision to sweep the Higher Education Investment Fund. Rep. Cathy Tilton, a Dunleavy ally, was the only vote against entering into the lawsuit. Oral arguments on the lawsuit are scheduled for oral arguments on Feb. 8.