Alaska Permanent Fund Corp.’s former director says her firing was ‘political retribution’
By James Brooks
The former director of the $83 billion Alaska Permanent Fund is blaming her abrupt December dismissal on “political retribution” by appointees of Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The governor denied any involvement in the process.
Director Angela Rodell was fired Dec. 9 by the corporation’s board of trustees, which has offered no explanation for its decision.
Trustees are appointed by governors and the four public trustees are not subject to legislative confirmation. The vote to fire Rodell was 5-1, with the sole “no” vote coming from a trustee who was not appointed or reappointed by Dunleavy.
Rodell has repeatedly advised the Alaska Legislature to spend less from the Permanent Fund than called for by plans previously proposed by the governor.
“I believe my removal to be political retribution for successfully carrying the board’s mandate to protect the fund and advocate against any additional draws over the POMV spending rule … which is contrary to Governor Dunleavy’s agenda,” she said in a Monday letter to the Alaska Legislature’s budget and audit committee.
That committee oversees Permanent Fund Corp. operations and has scheduled a fact-finding hearing Monday.
Its chair, Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, said Rodell’s belief “is a hypothesis that many share — because it’s been out there — that has not yet been proven.”
In a Tuesday interview, Rodell said she wants her reputation cleared and is considering legal action in order to confirm on the record that she was not fired for something she did wrong.
“I need my reputation. I want that vindication. I want people who Google my name to see that I wasn’t fired for cause,” she said.
“(The board) got rid of me so they can have someone they can control and manipulate in the executive director’s seat,” Rodell said.
Republican, Democratic and independent lawmakers have said they are concerned that Rodell’s firing — which came after the Permanent Fund’s best year on record — is a sign that the apolitical fund is becoming politicized.
Money from the fund accounts for two-thirds of the state’s general-purpose revenue in the latest state budget, far above the proportion funded by oil.
Asked about Rodell’s claim on Tuesday, Dunleavy’s deputy communications director provided a written statement from the governor: “One of the goals when the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation was established was to protect the fund from political influence, which is why a six-member Board of Trustees was created — they serve as fiduciaries to the fund. I was not involved in any decision-making related to the termination of APFC’s executive director. Alaska Statute 37.13.100 states that it is the responsibility of the board of trustees, not the office of the governor, to make employment decisions about the executive director. I learned of the termination just like everyone else did, following the trustees’ executive session. Anyone who suggests I had any influence over this decision is simply wrong. I had no influence in the decision of this board.”
Steve Frank, a former Republican state senator from Fairbanks who served on the Permanent Fund board for nine years, said it is plausible that the board would act on something like this without direction from the governor, and added that there’s a tradition of board members trying to maintain political independence.
Ahead of Monday’s hearing, Rodell provided a copy of her last performance review. That document, which has been held confidential until now, shows board members skeptical of Rodell.
“The director’s relationship with the board is soured,” an unidentified board member wrote. “Information that comes to the board is controlled and manipulated, board goals are sometimes ignored or even undermined, and a number of trustees in recent years have lost trust in her veracity and leadership.”
Another unidentified member wrote that they “often sense the board is only told certain things by CEO to drive a specific outcome.”
Board trustees have not responded to requests for interviews since their Dec. 9 vote, and they did not respond to additional requests Tuesday.
Paulyn Swanson, the corporation’s communications director, said trustees will not discuss the decision to fire Rodell because it took place in a private, executive session of the board.
“Consistent with the Alaska Open Meetings Act, the confidentiality of executive session is in place to protect an individual’s reputation and character. Therefore, it is not appropriate for the board to comment on the former Executive Director’s performance at this time,” she said.
In a December letter to state legislators, board chairman Craig Richards said the confidentiality is “designed to protect Ms. Rodell’s reputation, not to obfuscate the board’s grounds for its decision.”
On Tuesday, Rodell said trustees didn’t cite any examples to back up their review.
“How did I ignore their goal when I fulfilled what they asked me to do?” she said. “Where can you see in a board meeting that I’ve been directly told to do something, that I’ve undermined and not done?”
In 2018, Alaska lawmakers created a non-binding system of rules that annually transfers money from the fund to the state treasury.
Over the past several years, Rodell has repeatedly advised lawmakers to stick with a “rules-based approach” when spending money from the fund. That’s in line with resolutions approved by board trustees.
Dunleavy’s latest budget proposal, released after Rodell’s firing, does not call for spending more than allowed by the 2018 rules, but the governor had previously proposed temporarily breaking those rules to increase the amount of the Permanent Fund dividend.
Those proposals put Rodell’s advice to the Legislature in conflict with statements by administration officials, and Rodell said she received calls from officials in the governor’s office that pressured her.
Asked whether she has proof of the pressure, she said, “it’s all verbal.”
She instead pointed to the circumstances of her latest review, which was managed by revenue commissioner Lucinda Mahoney, serving as vice chair of the Permanent Fund’s board. It was the first time since 1982 that a cabinet official has served as vice chair.
“It had never happened, because the view was that it looked like the governor was controlling the board actions,” Rodell said.
Rodell’s personnel file could offer alternative explanations for her firing. The Daily News has submitted a public records request for the file, but state policy typically requires an employee to waive the right to personal privacy before that file is released under such a request.
Rodell said she is thus far declining to waive that right, in part because she may pursue legal action. She said she particularly objects to the idea that she has been less than truthful with the board and legislators.
“That’s where I feel that they have lied and impugned my character,” she said of board members.
On Wednesday, an official from the Alaska Department of Law said Rodell’s file will be released. He cited a provision of state law that exempts certain employees from the state’s personnel act.