Long-running tensions between a wealthy opponent of the proposed Pebble mine and the Alaska Public Offices Commission continue, with a decision Friday by the Alaska Supreme Court to let an administrative challenge run its course.
That already has happened, but the matter is far from settled.
The case at issue concerns whether APOC's leaders are biased in matters concerning Bob Gillam, a multimillionaire investor who has a recreational compound on Lake Clark and has pumped millions into the fight to kill the mine.
Gillam in 2012 sued APOC Executive Director Paul Dauphinais and then-commission Chairwoman Elizabeth Hickerson, accusing them of a vendetta against him. The suit aimed to remove APOC from overseeing a complaint against him that asserted he improperly bankrolled a campaign for an anti-Pebble ballot measure in 2011.
The Pebble project would be one of the biggest gold mines in the world, but it's being fought hard by sport and commercial fishing interests as well as Alaska Native groups. It's at the headwaters of two salmon streams that feed Bristol Bay, the most productive wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world. It has lost prime investors and is struggling financially.
On Friday, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier decision by a Superior Court judge who ruled that APOC had authority to address allegations of bias within its ranks and only after that process had been completed could the matter come to court.
After the initial court ruling but before Friday's opinion was issued, APOC considered the allegation that both the five-member commission and its staff were biased against Gillam. APOC ruled in September against disqualifying Dauphinais and earlier decided not to disqualify itself from considering a complaint that Gillam improperly financed the 2011 anti-Pebble campaign.
The heart of the bias accusation concerns a September 2012 meeting between Dauphinais and Curtis Thayer, then deputy commissioner of the Department of Administration overseeing APOC. Thayer left the meeting sure that Dauphinais was out to "get" Gillam, a friend of his, but Dauphinais testified in an administrative hearing that he didn't even remember talking about the complaint against Gillam. At any rate, he said, he applied even more care than normal to complaints against Gillam because he knew how rigorously Gillam's lawyers would fight back.
The underlying complaint asserts that a Gillam business secretly bought an airplane for proponents of the 2011 Save Our Salmon ballot initiative in the Lake and Peninsula Borough and that he spent money on the campaign in other ways that he failed to disclose.
That complaint has not yet been resolved.
Gillam now is appealing to the Superior Court the commission's determination that there wasn't bias.
The ballot measure, which passed in a borough mail-in vote, intended to block the Pebble mine by requiring large mines in Lake and Peninsula Borough to receive local approval before getting state and federal permits. A judge in March struck down that measure, saying that it gave the borough too much authority and would "Balkanize" state natural resources policy. Initiative proponents have appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
In November, Alaska voters statewide approved a separate but similar initiative. It says the Legislature must approve any large mine in the Bristol Bay region and can only approve one that would not damage salmon runs.