Why is the Attorney General making budget proposals?
If any more proof was needed of the insular power structure that Gov. Bill Walker has created in Juneau, it was on display Oct. 28 when his proposal was rolled out to use Permanent Fund earnings and oil royalties to help bridge the gaping budget deficit.
You’d think such an announcement would come from the governor himself or Revenue Department Commissioner Randall Hoffbeck. Instead it was Attorney General Craig Richards, Walker’s former law partner and protégé, who presented the plan to legislators and staff.
Having the attorney general present a budget plan makes zero sense on its face, but is more understandable in the context of an Oct. 14 letter from Walker to his other agency commissioners that Richards would be screening and approving their correspondence with legislators regarding the Alaska LNG Project.
A governor who trusts and respects the commissioners he has appointed wouldn’t have to issue such an order, but it has become crystal clear that the only opinions Walker listens to are the ones tied to his failed Alaska Gasline Port Authority, which only succeeded in making a lot of money for his law partners like Richards and the consultants he’s hired on at fat contracts since taking office.
There’s former AGPA Executive Director Jim Whitaker, now Walker’s chief of staff; the aforementioned Richards; former authority consultants Rigdon Boykin and Radoslav Shipkoff; and former authority lobbyist Rick Halford, who Walker appointed to the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board of directors earlier this year.
Here’s a fun exercise: Let’s play “What if Sean Parnell did it?”
Let’s imagine that former Gov. Parnell, who Walker defeated in the 2014 governor’s race, stacked his inner circle with former ConocoPhillips employees and lawyers from Patton Boggs, his two prior employers before becoming lieutenant governor in 2006, and inked a few of them to six-figure per month consulting contracts.
Then let’s pretend he told his attorney general to approve all correspondence between state agencies and the Legislature that funds and oversees them.
Finally, while doing all this, suppose Parnell was claiming to be transparent the whole time.
The ensuing press releases from Rep. Les Gara and Sen. Bill Wielechowski would write themselves.
Only a cohort whose members reside in an echo chamber could declare soberly they are dedicated to transparency while issuing what amounts to a gag order on commissioners subject to the messaging influence of the people’s attorney.
Because that is what Richards is. He is not the governor’s attorney. He is Alaska’s attorney. We are his client, so repeatedly seeking refuge from legislators’ questions behind attorney-client privilege is fairly insulting.
If Walker is so dedicated to transparency and against confidentiality when it comes to negotiating with the producers, then he should have no problem allowing free interaction between state agencies and legislators with questions.
Twice this session, Richards and Walker have interfered with such exchanges. First, Richards told Alaska Gasline Development Corp. CEO Dan Fauske and other senior members of the AK LNG team not to show at a Senate Finance Committee hearing. Later, the governor refused to make Richards available to the House Judiciary Committee to discuss pending confidentiality regulations related to AK LNG now before the AGDC board for approval.
When it comes to Walker and what he believes is transparency, it is confidentiality for me, but not for thee.
There is no other way to explain this comment from Richards in response to legislators’ and oil producers’ concerns about the new confidentiality regulations they believe will slow down the project or actually damage the state’s interest because its team can’t sit at the table:
“It’s been their (the producers) position from the very beginning of this process that they want as much confidential as possible — and I think from their position, any amount of sunshine is undesirable,” Richards told Alaska Dispatch News. “I don’t think it’s reasonable from the public’s perspective.”
What also isn’t reasonable from the public perspective is that the Legislature — or any citizen, for that matter — can have no faith they are receiving unspun information from critical agencies like Revenue, Natural Resources and AGDC when it comes to the AK LNG Project.
Walker and his authority crew have made very nice careers out of poor-mouthing the oil companies and claiming they have all the answers on how to build an Alaska gasline project, so it’s hard to blame them for the arrogant fashion they are conducting themselves with respect to the process they inherited and the Legislature that created it by a vote of 52-8.
After all, their populism minus any accomplishments got them all the way into the governor’s office.
But eventually they are going to have to deliver more than bumper stickers and rainbow-colored rhetoric. Or they can just keep blaming oil companies for everything.
It’s worked for them so far — and only for them. At some point maybe more of the public will start to notice.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].