Alaska News

Ex-lawmaker quits disputed job as governor's military adviser

Former state Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom resigned Friday as Gov. Sean Parnell's senior military adviser after the state attorney general said a court might find it illegal for Parnell to have given her the job.

Attorney General Dan Sullivan said Parnell hired Dahlstrom after the Department of Law told him it was legal. But Sullivan said a new, more thorough analysis, prompted by criticism of the hire, showed that initial advice was questionable.

"Although the Department of Law's earlier advice was not unreasonable, there is an appreciable risk that an Alaska court may not concur with the analysis on which that advice was based," Sullivan said in a finding released Friday.

The Alaska Constitution doesn't allow legislators to accept jobs created while they were in office.

Dahlstrom announced in May that she would be resigning from the state House to take a new position as Parnell's senior military adviser. When reporters questioned that, the Parnell administration maintained her $96,000 job was legal because it would not be technically created until after Dahlstrom resigned from the Legislature.

The matter drew little notice, even after Anchorage activist Andree McLeod and news reports brought up the constitutionality question, until KFQD talk-radio host Dan Fagan began to hammer Parnell on it last month. The attorney general then came on Fagan's radio show and said his department's analysis wasn't thorough and he would do a more complete one.

Dahlstrom is far from the only legislator who's taken a state job in this way. North Pole Sen. Gene Therriault resigned from the Legislature last summer to take a newly created job as Parnell's energy adviser. Parnell said he didn't ask Dahlstrom to resign and expected Therriault to remain in the position.


Previous governors have hired legislators in the same fashion. The Department of Law said Gov. Frank Murkowski hired Robin Taylor, Bill Hudson and Alan Austerman this way. Jim Duncan left the Legislature for a newly created position in the Knowles administration and Keith Specking for the Hammond administration, the department said.

Attorney General Sullivan said Parnell, Dahlstrom and Therriault acted in good faith, following advice of the Department of Law. He said the state's lawyers knew Alaska governors have been hiring legislators like this for decades, and relied on that fact too much in giving their advice.

"Institutional knowledge may have resulted in not doing the thorough research and analysis that we typically do quite well on almost all the issues we look at," he said.


Ethan Berkowitz, a Democratic former state legislator who is running against Parnell for governor, said if Parnell had a "bare shred of competence" he would have been able to recognize that the Alaska Constitution doesn't allow this.

Berkowitz distributed a 2003 legal opinion from Legislative Legal Services Director Tam Cook that concluded legislators can take state jobs created after they resign. But Cook also said there are questions and it's not clear how a court would rule.

"You've got to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, court cases are clear on that. And this to me smells like every effort was made to circumvent the spirit of the law," Berkowitz said. "And we've had enough of that behavior out of Juneau."

Ralph Samuels, a Republican ex-legislator also running against Parnell, said Parnell clearly broke the law.

"This whole sorry episode reeks of politics as usual, doling out highly-paid, made-up jobs to political friends. But in this case, what is most troubling is the governor's clear intent to sidestep the Constitution," Samuels said.

Bill Walker, another Republican candidate for governor, said, "Parnell secretly offered a job to a sitting legislator, illegally created the position, illegally hired her and let his attorney general take the blame."


Parnell said Friday he did nothing wrong hiring Dahlstrom. He said he believes the point of the law is to assure legislators cannot be unduly influenced in anticipation of a job.

Parnell said he waited until after this year's legislative session ended before talking to Dahlstrom about taking the position.

"In my opinion, we followed both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law," Parnell said.

His attorney general, Sullivan, agreed. "We conclude the same thing. As interpreted by the Department of Law after (Parnell) sought our advice, the letter and the spirit of the law was followed. But we looked at this in a very, very thorough way and we're the ones who are providing a change of course," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the issue was a legal "close call" and no court has specifically addressed the question.

He said the Alaska Constitution does not forbid governors hiring legislators, except for positions created while the legislator was in office or those for which the legislator voted to increase the salary. Sullivan's memo says legislators are attractive candidates for such jobs because they're knowledgeable about public policy.


Parnell said he hired Dahlstrom as military adviser to implement recommendations of the state's military advisory committee on how to bring more military missions to Alaska. "She's one of the few legislators who shows up for every military event and has the respect of the leadership here," he said.

Dahlstrom said Friday she felt good about taking the position when the state's lawyers said it was OK, but that changed when the new finding came out.

"Once I read that, it was very clear to me the only honorable thing to do was resign my position," she said.


Sean Cockerham

Sean Cockerham is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He also covered Alaska issues for McClatchy Newspapers based in Washington, D.C.