Former state Sen. Gene Therriault resigned as Gov. Sean Parnell's energy adviser Thursday amid furor over the legality of Therriault signing on to the position when he was still in the Legislature.
Neither Therriault nor Parnell admitted wrongdoing, with Therriault blaming Parnell's critics for creating "political turmoil" over the $110,000-a-year job.
"Unfortunately the political turmoil that has been generated by your detractors regarding the timing of my appointment has become a distraction and a potential detriment to you," Therriault wrote in his resignation letter to the governor.
Therriault, who started the job in September, is the second state legislator to take a position with the Parnell administration and then resign under fire for doing so. Former Eagle River state Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom quit earlier this month when Attorney General Dan Sullivan declared there was an "appreciable risk" that a court might find it illegal for Parnell to provide such jobs to legislators.
The Alaska Constitution and state law do not allow legislators to be "nominated, elected or appointed" to any state job created while they were in office. They must wait a year before taking such a job. Both Therriault and Dahlstrom resigned from the Legislature in order to take newly created state jobs.
Candidates for governor slammed Parnell on Thursday. Democrat Ethan Berkowitz and Republicans Bill Walker and Ralph Samuels said publicly that Parnell arrogantly broke the law and has taken no responsibility or shown remorse.
Samuels, who has been especially critical of the hire, said people are fed up with politicians who "use their public positions to help themselves and their friends, and bend and break the rules to do it." He said Parnell circumvented the Constitution to give a high-paid job to a political ally.
Parnell said Thursday he didn't ask Therriault to resign and stood by the hire.
"That hiring decision I made almost 10 months ago for Gene Therriault and with Nancy Dahlstrom were both made on the advice of counsel, following their advice at the time. Both very good people have now resigned their positions," he said.
Parnell said he asked the Department of Law for advice before hiring Therriault. The governor's office released a written one-page legal opinion dated Aug. 20, 2009, in which Senior Assistant Attorney General David Jones addressed the issue.
The Alaska Constitution states that "during the term for which elected and for one year thereafter, no legislator may be nominated, elected or appointed to any other office or position of profit which has been created, or the salary or emoluments of which have been increased, while he was a member."
Jones wrote that the attorney general's office opined several times over the years on the effect of that ban.
"You ask how these provisions would affect the eligibility of a former legislator for appointment to an executive branch position created after the legislator resigns from the legislature," Jones wrote. "So long as the position did not exist while the legislator was a member of the legislature, these provisions would not bar the appointment of a former legislator."
Jones added that establishing precisely when a new position was created "may, in some circumstances, be difficult." A court is more likely to agree the hire is OK if -- after the legislator resigns -- the state establishes a position with a new title, a new position control number and completely new duties, Jones wrote.
But political activist Andree McLeod produced a document this week showing that the governor's office and Therriault signed a "Request for Personnel Action" before he resigned from the Senate. The document states, "I acknowledge that I am being appointed" to the position of senior policy adviser for in-state energy. The document has a title, salary information, and a position control number. It has an effective date of Sept. 14, the day after Therriault left the Senate.
Therriault signed it on Sept. 12 and Linda Perez of the governor's office on Sept. 1. McLeod received the document as a result of a public records request from the governor's office.
Parnell, asked on Thursday how the hire was legal if that document was signed before Therriault resigned, conceded "it certainly raises those questions."
"Those are issues I just became aware of. My intention from the beginning was to follow the direction of the written (legal) opinion that we received and I believe that we did so," Parnell said.
Asked if he believes he did anything wrong, regardless of what legal advice he received, Parnell said: "I want to look forward and just say, two good people have resigned, and I have committed to not hiring new legislators going forward until we clarify this. I'm going to leave it at that."
Parnell has said he's asking the attorney general to recommend possible legislation to make it more clear what's allowed. Sullivan declined an interview request Thursday.
His spokesman, Bill McAllister, said Sullivan's July 1 opinion on the legality of hiring legislators to newly created positions speaks for itself. That's the opinion in which Sullivan said there was an "appreciable risk" a court could find it illegal.
Sullivan wrote in the July 1 opinion that "after undertaking additional thorough legal research and analysis, we conclude that our earlier advice was not based on all relevant considerations and case law and that, although the question is a close one, an Alaska court may disagree with the advice we previously provided."
Sullivan, who works for Parnell, wrote that the governor's office acted in good faith and followed the Department of Law's previous advice when it hired the legislators. He noted previous governors, particularly Frank Murkowski, had done the same thing.
Therriault, who could have increased his state pension by $30,000 a year if he'd stayed in the job for three years, did not return phone messages Thursday.
Therriault's letter said his resignation would be effective "the close of business Monday, August 2. This will allow me to appropriately complete work assignments before I depart."
"While I believe any judicial review of the circumstances surrounding my hire will be decided in favor of the administrative action we took in good faith, the debate over this issue should not divert Alaskans' attention from the important matters we have been working," he wrote.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Alaska Dispatch Publishing