After one-year waiting period, top Parnell staffer quickly moves to lobbying

JUNEAU — Former Gov. Sean Parnell's legislative director has launched a lobbying career, registering her first client just after the conclusion of a legally required year-long waiting period.

Heather Brakes, who left her job in December 2014, in January signed a $45,000 contract with a group called U.S. Term Limits, which is pushing to institute term limits for Congress and other levels of government. And on Saturday, she began an association with Wendy Chamberlain, who owns one of Juneau's most prominent lobbying firms and claims more than a dozen clients from some of the state's biggest industries.

Brakes' annual contract with Chamberlain's firm is $50,000.

Brakes worked for four different governors, beginning with Steve Cowper, and her final annual state salary was about $146,000. She said in a phone interview Tuesday she had not been seeking to leave her job; instead she was forced out when her boss lost re-election.

Working as a lobbyist, she said, is an occupation that allows her to use many of the same skills as her old job — tracking legislation, following hearings and research. The legislative director works as the governor's lobbyist.

"This is what I know — these are my skills," Brakes said. "It is what I've always done, whether I was working in the Legislature, governor's office, or now in this capacity."

Before she could start lobbying, Brakes had to wait a full year after leaving her job in Parnell's administration. She had served five years as Parnell's legislative director and earlier worked as an aide in the state Senate for Gene Therriault, a Republican from North Pole.

The one-year lobbying restriction stems from former Gov. Sarah Palin's ethics reform package, which passed the Legislature in 2007. Palin signed the bill the same day a jury found a former state representative, Tom Anderson, guilty of extortion and bribery charges stemming from a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation.

Only the governor, the lieutenant governor, and department commissioners had been covered by the one-year lobbying ban before the reforms took place. But lawmakers decided to expand the law in 2007 when a pair of top staffers for the previous governor, Frank Murkowski, began lobbying shortly after leaving the governor's office.

One was Kevin Jardell, Murkowski's legislative director, who registered to lobby for ExxonMobil one month after leaving his state job — which had involved lobbying lawmakers on a contract for a gas pipeline in which ExxonMobil was directly involved.

Another top Murkowski staffer, Denny DeWitt, registered as a lobbyist four days after leaving state service. One of his clients was the only phone company that had bid on a $30 million project to overhaul the state government's phone system — a project set up by a state department that was under DeWitt's oversight.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, was on the Senate Judiciary Committee when the ethics bill passed. He said lawmakers were trying to strike a balance between slowing the revolving door between public service and private industry, and allowing people to still find work after a government job.

"You always have to be concerned about people who served in a legislative capacity or an executive capacity and want to go out and use the connections they made to influence public policy," Wielechowski said. "At the same time, people have a right to go out and get a job."

The widening of the one-year cooling-off period to include more executive branch employees in the 2007 law, he added, allows for a "pretty fair time" to pass before lobbying is allowed. "I think the law we put in place was appropriate," he said.

Of Parnell's top deputies at the time he lost his re-election campaign, Brakes is the first to go into lobbying.

Other staffers have gone to work as legislative aides and consultants. Former commissioner of administration Curtis Thayer now heads the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, while former natural resources commissioner Joe Balash is chief of staff to the man he replaced at the head of the natural resources department: Dan Sullivan, who's now a U.S. senator.

Parnell, meanwhile, has opened a law firm in Palmer. He's also done consulting work for the Republican caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives, earning $20,000 for two months of work.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.