JUNEAU — Under questioning from a bipartisan legislative committee on Monday, the chairman of the Alaska Permanent Fund’s board of trustees defended the board’s decision to fire former executive director Angela Rodell but declined to answer substantive questions about the board’s reasons for the action.
Chairman Craig Richards said Rodell was an “at-will” employee and the board had years of “trust problems” with her. Citing the confidentiality of board discussions and the possibility of a lawsuit by Rodell, he refused to answer questions asking about the source of those problems, and he declined to say whether he or other trustees have been in communication with Gov. Mike Dunleavy about the firing.
“We’re not here, prepared today to go into an in-depth, detailed analysis of here’s everything she did right and everything she did wrong,” Richards told the Legislature’s budget and audit committee.
“That’s most unfortunate, because you had a month to prepare,” said Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, an Anchorage Republican and the committee’s chair.
Alaska legislators have been concerned that Rodell’s removal on Dec. 9 was the result of political pressure from the governor, who has appointed or reappointed five of the board’s six trustees. All five voted to fire Rodell; the sixth did not.
Richards said the board needs no excuse to fire Rodell. State law gives the board the right to hire and fire the fund’s executive director for any reason.
“Ms. Rodell was a highly compensated executive-level employee, and at the end of the day it is the board’s prerogative,” he said.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should — and that’s what we’d like to find out, is whether you should,” said Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage and vice chair of the budget and audit committee.
The Permanent Fund’s earnings provide two-thirds of Alaska’s general-purpose state revenue, and under Rodell’s tenure, the fund outperformed similar funds in other places. Rodell herself gained international renown as the chair of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds, and days after her firing, the Permanent Fund was named by a trade magazine as one of the top places to work in finance.
The board has a fiduciary responsibility to deliver maximum returns, said Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna.
“A lot of this sort of reeks of something else,” he said.
At points during his testimony, Richards pushed back against legislators, saying that they themselves are politicizing the firing by holding a committee hearing on it.
“What is best for the fund is to move on,” he said.
In 2018, the Alaska Legislature passed a law limiting annual withdrawals from the Permanent Fund. Dunleavy previously proposed temporarily breaking that limit during the transition to a new formula for Permanent Fund dividends.
Rodell, following resolutions passed by the Permanent Fund board, frequently testified against breaking the limit, saying that legislators should follow a “rules-based approach” when spending from the fund.
Rodell herself has said her firing was “political retribution” by the governor’s appointees, though she said she does not have proof of that assertion. She did not respond to a text or phone call seeking comment Monday.
Dunleavy has repeatedly said he had no role in the firing and reiterated that before Richards’ testimony.
“I was not involved in this issue,” the governor said Monday.
Richards told lawmakers that Rodell’s argument doesn’t make sense because the board has passed resolutions in support of the 2018 limit and against overspending. Current board members reviewed those resolutions in November and did not repeal them.
“I will unequivocally say that for me and all the other trustees that I’m aware of, that we still do believe these resolutions and support them,” he said.
In June, Revenue Commissioner Lucinda Mahoney advocated the Dunleavy plan and an overdraw to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce, according to reporting by the local public radio station.
Mahoney is the vice chair of the fund’s board of trustees and was in charge of Rodell’s performance review this year. She did not immediately respond to a question asking whether Richards’ testimony was accurate in her case.
Testifying Monday, Richards described long-term tensions between the board and executive director. At a meeting this fall, Rodell and Mahoney argued over a proposed bonus program for Permanent Fund employees. There was “visible tension” during that meeting, Richards said.
Rodell’s 296-page personnel file, released last week after a public records request filed by the Daily News, includes several years of performance reviews, and from 2018 through 2021, those evaluations show board members losing trust in Rodell.
“It often feels as if the board is being managed to the (executive director)’s agenda, as opposed to the ED trying to internalize and achieve the board’s agenda,” a board member wrote in 2018, before Dunleavy came into office.
“In my opinion, the (executive director)’s relationship with the board of trustees is broken,” said a board member’s comment in 2019.
“Does not embrace the vision of the board but instead tries to control the board to achieve her own vision and points of view,” one board member wrote in December.
It isn’t clear from the personnel file whether specific actions drove these and similar comments. No board member’s name is attached to them, and Rodell still received raises — her latest coming at the start of 2021.
Richards declined to answer questions from legislators about the source of the comments but did say that the evaluations formed only part of the basis for the board’s decision to fire Rodell.
As Monday’s meeting concluded, Von Imhof and other legislators said they intend to hold further meetings on the issue.
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage and a member of the budget and audit committee, has also proposed legislation that proposes to change the makeup and the appointment process for the board of trustees. That legislation will be formally introduced Tuesday, when the Legislature convenes its 2022 session.