The Alaska Permanent Fund’s board of trustees is threatening a lawsuit in response to the state Legislature’s investigation into the board’s firing of the fund’s former chief executive, Angela Rodell.
A letter sent by the trustees’ attorneys this week raises the specter of “extensive litigation” unless the legislative committee investigating Rodell’s dismissal sets aside its own threats of subpoenas and agrees to bring in an “independent party,” like a retired judge, to lead its probe instead of a hired attorney.
“The board believes that the committee’s investigation exceeds its statutory and constitutional authority — and the manner in which the investigation has begun raises serious concerns about its fairness and impartiality,” said the letter, signed by state attorneys Ben Hofmeister and Bill Milks. They added: “A fair and independent investigation, devoid of politics and without litigation, benefits all Alaskans.”
The letter, dated Monday, is the latest escalation in a fight between state legislative leaders and members of the Permanent Fund’s board, who are appointed by the governor and do not have to be confirmed by the Legislature.
“It is definitely a higher-than-thou mentality that’s coming from them,” said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Chris Tuck, vice chair of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, which is conducting the investigation. “They act like they’re untouchable. They don’t have to deal with any confirmations, but that does not mean that they do not have any oversight, and the statutes are very clear over LB&A’s authority over not just that corporation but all state corporations.”
The board fired Rodell in December from her $389,000-a-year-job heading the $81 billion fund, which was originally seeded with oil revenue and is now made up of a diverse portfolio of investments.
The firing came after years of strong returns for the fund under Rodell’s leadership, beating its five-year benchmark by some 1.7%. Legislative leaders, along with Rodell herself, questioned whether the dismissal was tied to her opposition to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s now-abandoned proposal to exceed lawmakers’ cap on spending from the fund.
Trustees initially refused to explain why Rodell was dismissed, saying it was a confidential personnel matter. Craig Richards, the attorney who leads the fund’s board of trustees, subsequently said that Rodell’s firing was “not based on political considerations” and was instead tied to concerns about her job performance raised in previous evaluations.
The legislative audit committee, chaired by Anchorage Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof, nonetheless hired an Anchorage attorney, Howard Trickey, to investigate the circumstances of Rodell’s firing.
Last month, Trickey sent a letter to attorneys for the fund’s trustees threatening to subpoena Richards if he continues refusing to discuss closed door “executive session” portions of trustee meetings held in the days before Rodell’s firing.
“Although we would prefer to not take such a needlessly confrontational and formal approach, the LBA Committee will issue subpoenas if necessary,” Trickey said.
In his letter, Trickey also asked to schedule interviews with each of the trustees and four high-ranking employees of the fund. And he requested nine sets of documents from the trustees, including “any and all communications” between them and Dunleavy’s administration about Rodell’s performance and termination.
No trustees have been interviewed yet, though the Permanent Fund corporation has provided “several hundred pages” of documents to the legislative audit committee, said a spokesman for the trustees’ attorneys, Aaron Sadler.
Trickey’s letter last month prompted Tuesday’s response from the trustees’ own attorneys, who argue that the legislative audit committee’s oversight authority is geared toward the Permanent Fund’s investments policy, rather than its management of personnel.
The attorneys also say that the committee broke its own rules by holding an executive session without a vote, that the trustees are legally barred from discussing the substance of executive sessions and that von Imhof — to whom other committee members granted subpoena power — has a “clear conflict of interest” because she’s said publicly that she and Rodell are “friends.”
“These issues are serious and go to the heart of due process, the fairness of any investigation and the separation of powers,” the trustees’ attorneys wrote. “This is why the trustees believe that the current approach of the committee should be reconsidered.”
Von Imhof’s subpoena power can only be used with approval from the Senate president or the House speaker.
Trickey, the committee’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Von Imhof, the committee’s chair, declined to comment through a staff member, saying that she had not seen Trickey’s letter and hadn’t sufficiently reviewed the trustees’ letter from this week. But Tuck, the committee’s vice chair, said he has no concerns about von Imhof’s friendship with Rodell, adding that von Imhof is facilitating the desires of the rest of the other lawmakers on the panel.
“Whether they have a relationship or not, we still need to figure out why this termination happened,” he said. “The public has a right to know.”