Commentary: It’s time for the Alaska Personnel Board to do a better job

By Veri di Suvero
For The Cordova Times

In December 2019, Gov. Dunleavy allowed the Alaska GOP to auction off breakfast with the governor at a fundraising event. The breakfast would take place in the governor’s mansion, which, of course, is not the governor’s at all, but belongs to the people of the state of Alaska. Alaska law prohibits the use of public property for partisan purposes. 

In February of this year, Ben Stevens left his job as chief of staff for Governor Dunleavy to become vice president of external affairs and transportation at ConocoPhillips. Because of the obvious revolving-door problem of high-level government officials, with insider knowledge and high-level connections, coming back to influence the state in favor of private interests, Alaska law calls for a year-long waiting period. This did not happen. 

Fortunately, Alaska has a system for adjudicating ethically questionable activities such as these. Citizens can report concerns to the Alaska Attorney General. The Alaska Public Interest Research Group did just that. In early May 2020, AKPIRG filed a complaint with the Attorney General citing the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act that prohibits the use of state assets and resources for partisan political purposes. Then, in March of this year, we filed another ethics complaint under the same act because of Stevens’ jump from the Governor’s office to ConocoPhillips. 

The AEBEA calls for the creation of a personnel board whose job it is to fairly administer the code of ethics, without bias or favoritism “in order for the rules governing conduct to be respected both during and after leaving public service.” If a member of the public submits a complaint to the Attorney General about the governor, lieutenant governor, or Attorney General, the AG hands the complaint to the Personnel Board, who has independent investigators to investigate the complaint. 

The Ethics Act exists to bring about accountability and to promote and strengthen the faith and confidence of Alaskans in their public officials. The personnel board is charged with making sure AEBEA rules are being followed. 

As of mid-July, AKPIRG hasn’t received official notification of the status of either of the ethics complaints. However, we learned from a media source that the complaint on the Stevens matter had been dismissed, and a summary written.

Even though that summary was statutorily supposed to have been provided to us, we had to submit a public records request so that we could read it. Were we ever surprised. 

The independent investigator, an attorney named John J. Teimessen said that our complaint was a political strategy that was “weaponized” because we informed the public about it. We did this, of course, to ensure transparency and accountability in the highest levels of state government. The public deserves to hear about ethical lapses from those who are stewarding our state’s resources.

In his report Mr. Teimessen went on to say that people or groups who file ethics complaints and make them public should face criminal charges. That’s right, the investigator suggested criminalizing those who would publicly question public officials.

Strikingly, the personnel board approved this summary report and thereby endorsed the criminalization of public oversight. If the personnel board believes the public should not meddle in government affairs, perhaps they have lost touch with the reason they exist. 

The Alaska Personnel Board needs to do better than this. Alaskans deserve to have faith and confidence that their public officers work for the public’s interest and not their own personal interests. Existing ethics standards need to be upheld by the board and periodically reviewed to make sure that they are strong enough to protect the public interest.

Veri di Suvero is the Executive Director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group.