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Alaska's attorney general: A 'Fairbanks redneck' with the governor's trust

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 10, 2016

Three days into a civil trial, with more than $100 million at stake in a fight over the value of the trans-Alaska pipeline, attorney Craig Richards stood before a judge in an Anchorage courtroom with one point.

"We're dangerously trailing into moose season here," said Richards, now Alaska's attorney general but then the attorney hired by the city of Valdez. "So, I was wondering what our plan was for the week after trial."

"Moose season?" asked Judge Sharon Gleason.

"Moose season, your honor," Richards said. "I'm trying to see if I'm going to be able to get a moose-hunting trip in."

Unlikely, Gleason responded -- "unless you're a quick weekend hunter."

"I guess that helps us know we're in Anchorage," chimed in a bemused Seattle attorney for the pipeline's oil company owners.

Richards, at trial with his law partner Bill Walker and two other firms, didn't get his moose that year. But he ultimately got a different head for his wall, winning the case and delivering $32 million in delayed property taxes to Valdez and more than $70 million to the state.

Now, he's just finished his first year as Alaska's attorney general and one of the most trusted advisors to Walker, who was elected governor in 2014.

Richards has taken on high-profile roles on Walker's plan to fix Alaska's huge budget deficit, and on state efforts to develop a $55 billion natural gas pipeline from the North Slope -- two items at the top of the governor's wish list. He sits on the board of trustees of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., and he's also in charge of the 550-person state law department, appearing in a Fairbanks courtroom last month for the announcement of a settlement that freed the men known as the Fairbanks Four from prison.

It's been a quick ascent that's left little time for moose hunting for the 40-year-old Richards, whose primary political experience before his appointment was as a volunteer making phone calls for Frank Murkowski's gubernatorial campaign more than a decade ago. He has also rankled some Republicans, who have clashed with him in legislative hearings and complained in party email newsletters that Walker has allowed the "ever-powerful" Richards to preside over his own "Boardwalk Empire."

Richards, a social conservative and self-described "redneck from Fairbanks," downplays the tension and notes that he is himself a Republican -- albeit one whose former law partner, with support from the Alaska Democratic Party, unseated former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.

"I'm not an elected attorney general -- I don't have an independent political agenda," he said in an interview at his Anchorage home near Westchester Lagoon, where he lives with his wife and 2-year-old son. "There's always room for interpretation, but I learned years ago that when in doubt, ask your boss. I definitely follow that mentality."

Richards moved to Alaska from Atlanta at 2 years old, when his parents decided they had enough of the traffic and his father, a federal probation officer, saw an advertisement for a job in Fairbanks. They arrived in the fall of 1977, right after the trans-Alaska pipeline was finished.

Richards graduated from West Valley High School, near the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, then went back to the South for college and law school; he also has an MBA from Duke University which he obtained after her started working at Walker's law firm. After a clerking for Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Ralph Beistline, who's now a federal judge, he worked for an Anchorage law firm on public finance issues, including a study of whether a natural gas pipeline could be financed with tax-exempt bonds.

In 2003, he was hired by Walker's law firm, which represented Valdez, to help with some public finance work, and his role ultimately expanded into other areas of Walker's practice like tax litigation and promoting a gas pipeline project. In a phone interview, Walker said his young hire made a quick impression when he walked into a strategy session of the firm's employees in his first few weeks on the job.

"Craig was sort of the new kid," Walker said. "He said, 'Well, I think your strategy is all wrong.' It was really quiet around the table."

"As I recall," Walker went on, "it had to do with some of our experts in the case. We didn't change experts, but it was very bold of Craig to raise his concerns that early into his employment with us. He really stood out as an independent thinker who was not afraid to express a counter position."

Walker said the meeting ended "awkwardly," but he walked Richards back to an office and told him never to be shy about expressing his opinions -- advice he says Richards has followed.

"He's still the same guy that in his first two weeks working for me sort of took me on and challenged me," Walker said.

Randy Hoffbeck, now the state revenue commissioner, described Richards as "supremely smart and "confident" based on legal cases in which he was involved prior to Walker's election.

"I think everybody's aware of that," Hoffbeck said of Richards' self-assurance.

After Walker's election in November, 2014, there was little doubt about who he'd pick as his attorney general. Bruce Botelho, a former attorney general who coordinated Walker's transition, said he didn't think the job was discussed with anyone else.

"I think it was one of the first decisions that Gov. Walker made," Botelho said. "I don't think at the outset there was any question."

By the time Richards came before the Legislature for confirmation in April, however, his appointment wasn't sitting well with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Members of the House and Senate Republican leadership were skeptical of Richards' professional history working alongside Walker — a history that included fights against the state's big oil producers. Those producers are partners with the state on the proposed natural gas pipeline project under a framework promoted by Parnell and supported by legislative leaders who backed Parnell's re-election over Walker.

Richards also testified before the Legislature several times over the last decade, including with Walker in 2013, when they spoke against a gas pipeline bill favored by House Republican leaders. At the time, House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican, said the testimony made him so angry that he had to leave the room.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, were upset that Richards decided to lend the state's name to a brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Alaska's, and other states', gay marriage bans. Richards was ultimately confirmed in a 36-23 vote.

Over the past year, Richards' portfolio has expanded beyond a typical attorney general's role. He coordinated the Walker administration's logistics for the special legislative session on the pipeline project in the fall. Walker named him to the Permanent Fund board in October, where he replaced another attorney, Larry Hartig, the environmental conservation commissioner.

And Richards led the Walker administration's development of a major initiative to transform the Permanent Fund into an endowment-like account to help close the state's massive budget gap, and to insulate spending against swings in the price of oil. He'll also be responsible, in tandem with Hoffbeck, for carrying the resulting bill through the legislative session that begins this month in Juneau.

Richards, who sat through a 5 p.m. interview sipping a freshly brewed cup of caffeinated coffee, insisted that his workload is actually smaller than it was as a private attorney, when he said he rarely made it home before midnight.

"This job doesn't run at that rate," he said. For his first few months as attorney general, he added, "I found the job challenging because I'd be in meetings all day, and then everybody goes home and it's like, 'When am I supposed to work?'"

Nonetheless, some lawmakers question whether Richards has taken on too much. "He's been delegated a tremendous amount of responsibility in areas that you wouldn't typically expect," said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat and also an attorney. He added: "It's a little worrisome from a workload perspective, because the attorney general is the top attorney in the state -- now you're putting on top of that the gas line, and now you're putting on top of that the Permanent Fund, basically the crux of the state's fiscal plan."

But Richards' role developing and promoting the fiscal legislation actually makes sense, said Hoffbeck, the revenue commissioner. In part, that's because Richards' undergraduate degree is in finance, but it's also because of his role as "the governor's confidant," Hoffbeck said.

"They trust each other completely," Hoffbeck said. "It made some sense, for the governor to feel comfortable with it, for the attorney general to be able to tell him: 'This works.'"

Richards also ran into some hostility from lawmakers during the special session on the pipeline when an employee of the state's gas line corporation told a Senate committee that Richards had instructed the corporation's president, Dan Fauske, not to travel to Juneau to testify.

Fauske, who resigned in November, was widely respected by legislative leaders, and following the disclosure that he'd been asked to remain in Anchorage, the Senate committee put its proceedings on hold until Richards -- who was on his way to a range, pistol in bag, to go target shooting with state troopers -- arrived to answer a series of sharp questions.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, the majority leader, said some of the animosity toward Richards stems from what she described as "maybe a little bit of an attitude that he's above, that the administration is above the Legislature -- and we're on a need-to-know basis."

"That's not the way government was designed," she added.

Richards, for his part, said he plans to work on improving his relationships with lawmakers, though he added that he hasn't yet taken steps like inviting them for meals or drinks.

"Probably wouldn't kill me to do a little bit more of that," he said, adding: "It tends not to be my personality to, sort of, schmooze."

As for moose hunting, Richards didn't go in the fall because he was supposed to go to Taiwan with a delegation of attorneys general — a trip that his other commitments ultimately forced him to cancel. Next year, he's thinking about a hunt north of the Alaska Range, or maybe trying to bag a caribou instead.

"We'll see if I make it," he said.

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