Three weeks after winning the governor’s race in 2018, Gov.-elect Mike Dunleavy articulated what he saw as one of the biggest problems facing Alaska. “Too many Alaskans have simply lost trust that their elected leaders will keep promises,” Dunleavy wrote. “Restoring trust with Alaskans will be my most urgent priority after I become governor on Dec. 3.”
He wasn’t wrong: Many Alaskans did indeed feel betrayed, whether by reductions to the Permanent Fund dividend, the sudden, then-unexplained resignation of Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, or an unwillingness in some quarters to confront the state’s fiscal crisis. But since then, it would be hard to argue that Alaskans’ trust in state government has improved. Roughly two years later, two state attorneys general have resigned over alleged misconduct and, most recently, Dunleavy chief of staff Ben Stevens went straight from the governor’s office to a vice president position at ConocoPhillips Alaska, with no attempt to address concerns about Alaska’s Executive Branch Ethics Act, which clearly conflicts with the move.
The Ethics Act, passed in 2007, intended to discourage cronyism by fixing the “revolving door” whereby state officials profited from their knowledge of the inner workings of government to aid lobbying firms or private interests. At the time, it was a relatively common practice for high-level state employees, immediately after leaving state service, to become lobbyists or take jobs with the companies they regulated in their former positions.
The Ethics Act’s prohibition on such action is broad: “A public officer who leaves state service may not, for two years after leaving state service, represent, advise, or assist a person for compensation regarding a matter that was under consideration by the administrative unit served by that public officer, and in which the officer participated personally and substantially through the exercise of official action.”
But, in recognition of extenuating circumstances, the Ethics Act included a waiver process. For work that was deemed to be in the public interest and not in ethical conflict with a departing state employee’s previous job, the two-year “cooling off” period could be eschewed, via a signed declaration by the head of the former employee’s department — in Stevens’ case, this would be Gov. Dunleavy — and the state attorney general.
The governor’s chief of staff is arguably the most powerful unelected person in Alaska, participating in all manner of state business. Rather than pursue such a waiver for Stevens, the governor’s office and acting Attorney General Treg Taylor have — perplexingly — chosen to act as though there is as yet no breach of the Ethics Act. In a recent House Judiciary Committee meeting, Taylor said the state would take what amounts to a wait-and-see approach on the need for a waiver, moving forward with one only if it becomes clear that Stevens is doing work that would violate the Ethics Act’s prohibitions.
The notion that Stevens could possibly do his job at ConocoPhillips Alaska without overlapping with his former work as chief of staff doesn’t pass the smell test, even for those inclined to believe the best of both state government and oil producers. Stevens’ very first responsibility articulated by the company’s spokeswoman in the announcement of the move was “government relations.” ConocoPhillips has said that Stevens will abstain from advising his new employer on matters under consideration by the governor’s office for the next two years. It’s true that his position is broad, and he will have plenty of other responsibilities to keep him busy, but it’s far-fetched to expect the public to trust that as a vice president, Mr. Stevens will leave the room whenever political strategy is discussed — particularly given that his duties include overseeing the company’s lobbying efforts. Either way, it’s a bad look. If everything is truly on the up-and-up, the state should abide by the Ethics Act and seek a waiver in this case, and live up to Gov. Dunleavy’s promise to restore trust with Alaskans.
Complicating the matter is the fact that, in its current form, the Ethics Act’s prohibitions are too long in duration, overly broad and lack sufficient clarity to define the bright lines that Stevens and other former state employees must avoid. If we believe our state government should attract highly qualified, high-powered people to execute the state’s mission, we can’t expect them to forgo private employment for a full two years after leaving state government. The “cooling-off” period should be halved. Luckily, even in its current form, the act does include a waiver process, which exists to allow appropriate exceptions. But the state has wrongly insisted seeking a waiver isn’t yet warranted.
If the Dunleavy administration persists in the assertion that it’s unnecessary to seek a waiver for Stevens’ new employment, they are overlooking two realities: First, failing to immediately address the conflict articulated by the Executive Branch Ethics Act looks to Alaskans like the administration has something to hide — especially when abiding by it would be as simple as seeking a waiver. Second, if they continue to pretend no waiver is necessary, there will inevitably and rightly be a public-interest lawsuit over the matter.
And regardless of who prevails in that lawsuit, one thing is clear: The “trust deficit” Gov. Dunleavy identified shortly before taking office will have grown substantially deeper.