In a normal year, the Legislature’s joint session to confirm the governor’s appointees to the cabinet and boards and commissions is a tedious, often stuffy multi-hour endeavor.
In a year where we’ve continually asked ourselves “Just who is vetting these people?!?” the Legislature looks to be in for a real slog when all 60 legislators cram into the House at 1 p.m. Wednesday to take up the appointments of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy.
The governor’s appointments have been riddled with controversy and resignations. Some of the more notable ones were the resume-fabricating Department of Administration Commissioner-designee John Quick, the right-wing Twitter troll Regent Tammy Randolph and the resigned-before-he-was-recalled Council on Judicial Conduct appointee Trevor Shaw.
But not everyone who’s faced pushback has resigned and many will take their (admittedly pretty good) chances with the majority-Republican Legislature. It takes a total of 31 votes to confirm an appointment.
To that end, we’ve rounded up a few of the more notably controversial appointees that will be considered on Wednesday.
We can think of plenty more that should be on this list—there’s former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan’s appointment to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska and Alaska Policy Forum’s Bob Griffin’s appointment to the Board of Education to name a few—but time is finite.
Want to sound off? See y’all in the comments.
Amanda Price – Department of Public Safety Commissioner
Department of Public Safety Commissioner-designee Amanda Price has been getting all the attention from the media, the blogs and—for the most part—the Legislature. Her appointment has been surrounded in rumor, controversy and, honestly, quite a bit of confusion.
Anyways, here’s the controversies in bullet-point format:
- A model employee or a chronic no-show? After a bit of a fight, the House State Affairs Committee (which has been doing much of the vetting of Price) heard conflicting testimony from former supervisors in the Walker administration about her time there. Former Chief of Staff Scott Kendall said Price was well-known for her absenteeism while others like prior Chief of Staff Jim Whitaker said he’d recommend her. You can guess which statements the Dunleavy administration chose to roll out in an ad campaign supporting Price’s nomination.
- Rural safety or Village Public Safety Officers? On the policy end of things, the leading complaints against Price have centered on her attitude toward the Village Public Safety Officer program and rural public safety in general. The concern comes as the governor’s budget requests have sought to shift money away from the program toward Alaska State Trooper-focused spending.
- At times, legislators have found Price’s comments on the VPSO program dismissive. Again, she denies this, but she has said she’s focused on improving rural safety, suggesting that the VPSO program may not fall under that definition. At a news conference to drum up support for Price on Tuesday, the absence of a VPSO representative was striking.
- Qualified or not? From the start, there have been concerns that the Department of Public Safety, which houses the Alaska State Troopers, would be helmed by someone with no law enforcement background. At a previous meeting, Price suggested that troopers don’t make the best managers—something that Rep. Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage, said at least one trooper took offense to. It also came out during the hearing that Price doesn’t have a college degree, something that her resume suggested but never explicitly stated one way or another.
- Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, also commented, “You were a mom who had a baby boutique, it doesn’t paint the picture of someone who’s the commissioner of public safety.”
- Fabrication or a forward? The House State Affairs Committee also got a chance to quiz Price about allegations that she had plagiarized a report while working for the Walker administration. It appears that the claims center around some kind of report on input surrounding the formation of Senate Bill 91, the 2016 criminal justice reform bill that’s become a punching bag for all problems with crime.
- A legislative staffer noticed that the report by Price was a “word-for-word copy of a document Gerard Asselin sent me over a month ago (at my request) to explain some changes they would like in the bill. Literally verbatim.” Price responded that she had just forwarded the report, denying claims she represented it as her own work. Price then read another email from a different person in the email chain who apologized, seeming to chalk it all up to a miscommunication.
- Background checks: There was a fair amount of questioning over Price’s clearance of background checks. Because the commissioner-designee has a foreclosure in her past, there’s been concern about whether or not she would be able to access the criminal databases in the Department of Public Safety. She’s since testified that she’s passed the basic background check required of civilian members of the department, claiming she’s met the same clearances as previous commissioners.
- Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux frequently hammered at this at Tuesday’s meeting, noting that the previous commissioners also had law enforcement backgrounds that would have subjected them to the more rigorous background checks that troopers undergo. The DPS officials eventually conceded that they were not sure what clearances former Commissioner Walt Monegan had.
Whether all of this amounts to the Legislature rallying enough votes to oppose her is unknown at this point, to be honest. It’s certainly weird and confusing. It’s increasingly hard to tell fact from fiction with this appointment, and maybe that’s the whole point.
One last thing: When asked if she had gone and talked to the media about the reasons for why Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott resigned, she said yes. This was not followed up on during the hearing, though it should be noted that Mallott’s resignation occurred well after her departure from the Walker administration.
Kevin Clarkson – Attorney General
Before being tapped to be the state’s top attorney, Kevin Clarkson made his name as the go-to attorney for pretty much all conservative issues—whether it be opposing same-sex marriage, representing anti-abortion cases, protecting the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s unconstitutional invocation policy that discriminated against non-Christian religions or attempting to shut down the Troopergate investigation into former Gov. Sarah Palin.
Alaskans Together for Equality, an LGBTQ advocacy group, sent out an email blast on Tuesday calling for a last-minute push against Clarkson, calling him “one of the most outspoken voices for discrimination in Alaska.”
We haven’t seen significant, high-profile action on this front so far—and if we’re being honest, the Legislature doesn’t have a great track record on any of these issues, having rejected a transgender appointee in 2017.
Clarkson’s most significant move came in the last week, when he made the newfound legal argument that the Legislature’s forward funding of education last year was not actually constitutional (pretty much everyone else agrees it was). It’s a flimsy argument and largely appears to be cover so the administration can make $1.2 billion in education funding available for a line item veto.
It’s an opinion that hasn’t sat well with legislators from both sides of the political aisle.
Jason Brune – Department of Environmental Conservation
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner-designee Jason Brune has drawn a significant amount of public backlash—somewhere on the magnitude of thousands of emails, phone calls and comments to the Legislature—due to his work history with Anglo American, the company that worked on the Pebble Mine up until 2013. Brune worked as the company’s public affairs and government relations manager.
As the top environmental regulator, Brune would have a key role in approving critical state permits for the controversial mine, which was the subject of a packed federal hearing and protests in Anchorage on Tuesday.
So far, the Department of Environmental Conservation under Brune has drawn scrutiny for fiddling with allowable contamination levels for PFAS pollutants that would essentially raise the level that would trigger higher attention.
Adam Crum – Department of Health and Social Services
Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner-designee Adam Crum raised plenty of eyebrows with his appointment. That’s because other than a degree in public health, Crum has no direct experience with health care.
That alone would probably raise opposition to his nomination. The questionable privatization of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and sudden cutting off of monthly payments to more than 4,000 beneficiaries of the Senior Benefits Program probably won’t help much, either.
John Francis – Violent Crimes Compensation Board
John Francis is a ghost hunter and that’s very concerning to some legislators.
“This to me is very serious because this is part of the Violent Crimes Compensation Board. I want to know: Do you believe you can talk to the dead? Do you see spirits? I’m trying to get information, or do you believe because you used investigations you can sort out the truth,” said Sen. Lora Reinbold during one of the more entertaining hearings this session. “This has been brought to me by multiple constituents, multiple people are very, very concerned about this. If it’s just for fun and all make-believe, tell me that. If you’re serious and there’s an investigative process and you believe this is real, I want to know that.”
Vivian Stiver – Alaska Marijuana Control Board
The governor wants to repeal the Alaska Marijuana Control Board (though he’s yet to introduce a bill to actually do so), but in the meantime he wants to put one of the last staunch opponents of legalized recreational marijuana on the board.
Stiver was behind the failed 2017 Fairbanks-area campaigns to ban already-operating commercial marijuana stores from the city of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The voter initiatives both failed by wide margins.
Stiver’s been labelled a prohibitionist by many in the industry and her attempts to show her interest in the industry—like skimming the handler permit course—fell short of convincing anyone. That she was spotted playing on her phone during a hearing probably didn’t help.
— Kevin Baird (@evil_bad_man) March 7, 2019
Thing to remember: Stiver worked in the Legislature as an aide to Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, and was one half of an in-committee legislative skit about food safety.
Michael Tavoliero – Real Estate Commission
The March 18 meeting of the House Labor and Commerce Committee didn’t seem like it’d be a particularly interesting one. But alongside meeting documents about ATM fees, there was this resume for one Michael Tavoliero.
Getting any additional information about his employment—like a 30-year gap between his education and his current job—seemed like pulling teeth. He also disclosed later in the meeting that he’s actively working on some real estate development projects, something that was omitted from his resume.
His social media, littered with right-wing Islamophobic tweets—or his blaming a series of tweets praising the strong-arm tactics of Rodrigo Duterte on his “Philippine digital assistant” didn’t help.
Board of Fish and Board of Game appointees
We almost skipped over these because appointees to either of these boards are typically contested, drawing weird alliances across political party and geography.
Fish politics have always been a mystery to us, but here’s the Alaska Journal of Commerce’s summary of how things are shaping up:
“One — Marit Carlson-Van Dort of Juneau — drew some raised eyebrows because of past work with the Pebble Limited Partnership, and another — Karl Johnstone of Anchorage — sparked a fiery opposition from commercial fishermen and vocal support from sportfishermen. The other two, Israel Payton of Wasilla and Gerad Godfrey of Kodiak, drew little to no controversy.”
Johnstone, who was on the board until 2015, “comes with a heavy wake of controversy” as evidenced by more than 100 people testifying at a Monday-night hearing about him.
The Journal continues:
In 2000, he was publicly reprimanded by the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct for violating the legal parameters of hiring a coroner and was once recommended for nonretention by the Alaska Judicial Council in 1988 for being unqualified, ranking low in integrity, judicial temperament and overall performance.
Within the fisheries world, he’s a polarizing character. Sportfishing advocates testified to the committee that he maintained a professional demeanor and always came prepared to meetings, running them fairly for the four years when he served as the chairman.
On the other end of the spectrum, commercial fishermen ardently oppose his nomination because they say he is irreversibly biased in favor of the sportfishing industry and say that he created a hostile atmosphere at board meetings.”
On the Board of Game side of things, Dunleavy gave wolf-trapper Al Barrette another shot. Barrette was appointed to the board under former Gov. Parnell but was rejected by the Legislature amid backlash over wolf-hunting, but not before Barrette could cast a deciding vote to eliminate the wolf-hunting buffer zone around Denali National Park.