JUNEAU — Alaska House Speaker Mike Chenault launched a new salvo Monday in his battle against Gov. Bill Walker, introducing a bill to block Walker's attorney general from serving on state boards and commissions.
The bill, House Bill 287, wouldn't be retroactive. But it includes a request that Walker find someone to replace Attorney General Craig Richards on the board of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. In a statement of intent as a preamble to the measure, the bill cites lawmakers' desires to keep Richards focused on legal matters.
"He is the attorney for the citizens of Alaska. And if he's dealing with all of these committees that he's on, how effectively is he taking care of the peoples' business?" Chenault said in an interview Monday. "It's important that we have an attorney general that's looking out for the people of the state of Alaska, and not devoting the majority of his time to the Permanent Fund board, or any other."
Chenault, a Republican from Nikiski, maintained that his bill wasn't a shot at Walker. But Walker appeared to take it that way, responding late Monday in a prepared statement with a defense of Richards, his former law partner and a trusted confidant.
Chenault's bill, Walker said, would deprive state boards and commissions of "the insight and counsel of attorneys general," and he suggested that the proposed legislation was a distraction from the state's $3.8 billion budget deficit.
"Alaska is facing serious challenges that must be addressed this legislative session," the statement quoted Walker as saying. In a reference to how quickly the state is emptying its savings accounts, Walker added: "It is unfortunate that while we are taking on water at a rate of $400,000 an hour, some are focused on limiting who can help bail the boat."
Richards, whose undergraduate degree is in finance, led Walker's administration last year in developing a plan to restructure the Permanent Fund to help close the budget deficit. While Richards himself is a Republican and describes himself as a "redneck from Fairbanks," his influence with Walker and his large policy portfolio have drawn skepticism from GOP leaders.
Chenault's co-sponsors for his bill include two of his close allies in House Republican leadership — Anchorage Reps. Charisse Millett, the majority leader, and Craig Johnson, chair of the House Rules Committee.
Millett and Johnson last year co-sponsored another bill from Chenault that appeared similarly narrowly tailored to thwart Walker's agenda for the state's proposed natural gas pipeline project.
The bill would have stopped an existing state corporation, the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., from scaling up the size of a separate pipeline project controlled by the state, which Walker was trying to do. The measure had the support of the Senate's GOP leadership and speeded through both legislative chambers before Walker vetoed it.
The path for House Bill 287, however, doesn't appear to be as smooth, with Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, saying Monday that he was unfamiliar with its details.
"I don't even know why he's doing it," Meyer said in an interview. "This is the speaker's bill."
Meyer said he saw no problems with Richards sitting on the board of the Permanent Fund, or any other state board, though he added: "I suppose it's at least worth running it through the committee process and learning more about it."
Richards, who Walker named to the Permanent Fund board in October, is not the first attorney general to hold that position. Previous attorneys general on the board include David Marquez under Republican Frank Murkowski and Norman Gorsuch under Democrat Bill Sheffield.
Chenault's bill cites two reasons for curtailing the attorney general's responsibilities on the Permanent Fund board or any board or commission.
One is the potential for conflicts of interest between the positions of state corporations or entities and the attorney general's position as the top lawyer for the state, if both are involved in legal proceedings.
The other is that the attorney general's board service "takes away or reduces the attorney general's time, energy, and focus on representing the state's interest" in legal proceedings, and in giving legal advice to state entities — particularly those responsible for managing Alaska's natural resources, the bill says.
Chenault said he wasn't aware of any circumstances in which legal conflicts had arisen. But he also said it was unique for Richards to be serving on the board of the Permanent Fund while simultaneously promoting a new structure for the fund during legislative hearings.
"We've never had that before, either," Chenault said.
His bill would bar the attorney general from serving on boards of several other state entities, from the Criminal Justice Information Advisory Board to the Adak Reuse Authority.
Richards, in a brief interview Monday afternoon, said his service on state boards presented no "moral, legal, or ethical problem," though he wouldn't elaborate, saying he hadn't reviewed the details of the bill.
Bruce Botelho, a Democratic former attorney general who served as Walker's transition coordinator, called Chenault's bill "a solution in search of a problem."
State corporations don't typically sue the state, Botelho said in a phone interview, and conflicts that do arise within the state's law department are resolved "informally and internally."
Nelson Page, president of the Alaska Bar Association, said in a phone interview Monday that the attorney general — like any other attorney in the state — is subject to rules of professional conduct. With direct conflicts of interest, Page said, attorneys are supposed to "insulate themselves from decision-making on a particular issue."
"That can be done, and I know it has been done," he said.
Chenault referred his bill Monday to the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage. She said she hasn't reviewed the legislation; before doing so, she said she'll wait for Chenault to ask for a hearing on it.