JUNEAU — A joint committee of the Alaska Legislature on Thursday approved $100,000 and subpoena powers for a special investigation to determine why the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.’s board of trustees fired executive director Angela Rodell after the fund’s best year on record.
The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee voted unanimously to hire the law firm of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt to conduct the investigation and determine whether political factors played a role in Rodell’s firing.
The committee also agreed to grant Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, the power to issue subpoenas to compel testimony.
Rodell has said her firing was “political retribution” for statements opposing a budget plan proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The chairman of the board of trustees, Craig Richards, has denied that claim, citing years of personnel conflicts in personnel reviews. Some of those conflicts predate Dunleavy’s term in office.
An annual transfer from the Alaska Permanent Fund accounted for two-thirds of the state’s general-purpose revenue in the most recent budget. Lawmakers are concerned that the fund’s ability to provide future transfers could be endangered if its management is politicized.
Von Imhof said she hopes the investigation will conclude before the scheduled end of the legislative session in mid-May.
Reached by phone after the vote, Richards said he was unaware of the committee’s action, and he declined comment. Dunleavy’s deputy communications director said he also was unaware of the committee’s action and unable to provide immediate comment.
Jon Choate, an attorney representing Rodell, said he thinks “greater transparency into the board’s decision-making, especially in light of reports of meetings between members of the board and Gov. Dunleavy in the weeks before Ms. Rodell’s termination, is important for all Alaskans, including Ms. Rodell.”
To reduce the possibility that the result of the investigation could be politically influenced, von Imhof said the committee intends to follow the lead set by the 2008 “Troopergate” investigation.
In that case, the Alaska Legislature hired a special investigator to determine whether or not then-Gov. Sarah Palin improperly fired the state’s public safety commissioner.
After a month of work, independent investigator Stephen Branchflower delivered a 263-page report that concluded Palin abused her authority in seeking the firing of a state trooper who was employed as her sister’s former husband, but that she did not act illegally in firing the commissioner. (A second report, delivered a month later by the state’s personnel agency, said Palin did not abuse her authority.)
To run this investigation, von Imhof said the board focused on attorney Howard Trickey, based on his experience and prior interactions with committee members.
Trickey has more than 40 years of experience in Alaska on a variety of subjects and has been advising the budget and audit committee since December, when he was consulted under procurement rules that allow the committee chair to sign no-bid contracts worth less than $35,000. That prior work has been folded into the $100,000 amount.
“I don’t think it’s going to be near that (cost), but I wanted to give the leeway just in case,” von Imhof said.
Trickey did not reply to messages Thursday night.
In Alaska, legislative committees rarely use subpoena powers, and their use in this case would be an extraordinary step.
Von Imhof said the committee will provide Trickey with a list of people to contact, and if they decline to be interviewed, she may issue a subpoena. Doing so requires the cosignature of either the Senate President or Speaker of the House.
Subpoenas could be issued for individual documents or collections of documents, as well as to compel testimony.
“Our goal is to find out what happened, and to see if there’s any political influence by either the board or the executive branch,” von Imhof said.