Alaska's 'First Dude' takes leave from BP job

Tom KizziaLos Angeles Times

Editor's Note: This story was orginally published March 2, 2007

Todd Palin, Alaska's new first spouse, has taken a leave of absence from his blue-collar job working on the North Slope for BP. Palin, husband of newly elected Gov. Sarah Palin of Wasilla, will instead work part-time for his union, the United Steelworkers Local 4959, according to officials with the union and BP. The agreement between the British oil giant and the union allows Palin to come back to his job within a year and keep his seniority.

In an interview, Todd Palin said he is taking the leave not to avoid any conflict of interest but because the family's busy schedule makes it impossible for him to work regular shifts. He held out the possibility of going back to work in a matter of months, after life in the governor's mansion settles down.

"I've got a great job on the Slope," he said. "I just don't want to give it up."

Todd Palin's hourly wage job with BP creates a novel ethical twist in Alaska politics.

Conflicts of interest, outside employment and ethics reform are the subject of much debate in Juneau. Sarah Palin owed much of her electoral success last year to her image as an ethics reformer.

Few companies have as big a stake in state government as BP. The company is Alaska's No. 2 oil producer, runs most of the North Slope fields and owns half of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. BP and the state are in constant contact over regulation, taxation and environmental oversight -- not to mention possible negotiations over a new gas pipeline.

On the other hand, Todd Palin's job as an hourly wage production operator at a Prudhoe Bay gathering center is far from the center of power in BP. Palin works both indoors and out at the facility, which separates water from crude oil and reinjects the water into the ground before sending oil down the pipeline.

As an officer in the steelworkers' local, Palin has also served on the union's negotiating team, said steelworkers local secretary-treasurer Glenn Trimmer.

"Trust me, that doesn't endear you to the company," Trimmer said.

Ethicist Michael Josephson of Los Angeles, who led a seminar on ethics for Alaska legislators this year, said he doesn't see much potential for conflict in Todd Palin's job. Not compared to some of the other conflicts he heard about in the Legislature.

The problem for Gov. Palin would be facing a decision about BP that could affect her family's income, Josephson said. If her husband were president of BP, the governor would have to recuse herself from just about everything that touched the oil company. In Todd Palin's case, state decisions are not likely to have much impact on the family, Josephson said.

But he added that some people might suspect BP of doing favors for Todd as a way to reach his wife. Therefore Todd Palin's leave of absence might be prudent.

"I don't think he had to do that," said Josephson. "I think it's a good thing he did. Let's take one more thing off the table."

The arrangement with BP, allowing Palin to retain his seniority as he takes a leave for union work, can last only up to a year under the current contract, said union official Trimmer. The leave began Jan. 25. New arrangements would have to be made for a leave in 2008 and thereafter.

"Obviously we didn't anticipate anybody within our ranks being in a position like he is," Trimmer said.

Keeping his seniority would help Palin hang on to his job in the event of layoffs, Trimmer said. He said Palin would receive a small stipend from the union for "very part-time work."

The steelworkers local represents about 500 workers in Alaska, mainly working for BP, Agrium, Crowley Maritime and Sitka hotels, Trimmer said. Todd Palin has been an elected trustee for the local, whose unpaid job is to audit the union's books, he said.

The Palins met at Wasilla High School and eloped in 1988.

Todd Palin, 42, has been the main family breadwinner for most of the time since. Working a week-on-week-off shift on the North Slope, he has taken time off to fish a commercial setnet site in Bristol Bay and to race a snowmachine in the Iron Dog, the cross-state race he and his partner won this year.

In an interview during the last month of her campaign, Sarah Palin said her husband would quit his job if she were elected. Asked about that election night, Todd Palin was much less definite, saying he hoped to work something out with BP, for whom he has worked at since 1989.

Todd Palin said his annual wages came to something in the neighborhood of $100,000. Sarah Palin makes $125,000 a year as Alaska's governor.

Todd Palin returned Wednesday from his first trip to Washington, D.C., where he toured sites, was impressed by high security measures, and attended functions of the National Governors Association. He said he enjoyed talking to other "first gentlemen" married to female governors. There are five of them.

The Michigan governor's husband gave up his business when she was elected in 2002 and now plays an active role in her administration, Palin said. The Kansas governor's husband was the first to coin the phrase "first dude." He is a federal magistrate, so in Kansas "they have to really watch their P's and Q's," Palin said.

Palin said he sees no conflict with his own oil-field job because he's not in management. He concedes others might see it differently.

"As a commercial fishing family, do I have a conflict?" he said.

Alaska's first family is still sorting out its new life, Palin said.

As first spouse, he said he'd like to focus attention on work force development and vocational training issues.

The Palins' son, Track, has returned from playing junior hockey in Michigan and is finishing out his senior year at Wasilla High. Their three younger daughters are attending school in Juneau. Sarah Palin's mother, Sally Heath, stayed with the girls while their parents were in Washington.

Working as a Sloper and commuting for weeklong shifts, Todd Palin said, it was always left to Sarah to play the supermom role when she was mayor of Wasilla. Now that's not possible.

"Our family is very adaptable," he said. "As long as the kids are good, that's the big decision whether I go back to work."

Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at or in Homer at 907-235-4244.

By Tom Kizzia
Anchorage Daily News