For a moment, it nearly looked like Gov. Mike Dunleavy was getting the hang of speaking to the press at his news conference on Wednesday—pledging to fix the ferry system about as convincingly as someone whose original budget proposed just three months of ferry service could—but then it took a turn for the worst when he opened questions to reporters.
The final ten minutes where he fielded questions on the PFD, the recall, the judiciary and the administration’s seeming disregard for rural Alaska’s concerns about REAL ID were a masterclass in losing control of the message.
But it was questions about the $441,000 no-bid sole-source contract awarded to the grandson of one of the governor’s biggest political backers—which increasingly appears to have been made with the involvement of the governor’s office despite earlier claims—that sparked the most bizarre response that raised more questions than answers.
The administration has so far struggled to explanation how the $441,000 four-year contract to Clark Penney, grandson of Bob Penney who gave $350,000 to a group supporting Dunleavy’s election, was awarded or what the state is getting out of it. The deal was oddly inked by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority in what appears to be a move to skirt the state’s procurement laws. The agency’s executive has claimed Dunleavy had no involvement in it, but recent revelations suggest otherwise.
Instead of pivoting to his economic development platform or extolling trust in his administration’s ability to follow the law, Dunleavy instead lashed out at Democratic Reps. Zack Fields and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins for even questioning the contract in what appeared to be a rehearsed but stumbling tirade.
“So, this is raised, I think, by Rep. Fields and Tomkins in the House, I believe it was,” he said. “These are the same individuals that voted to lower the ethics bar last year on the ethics bill, I just want to make sure we got this right, that these are the same individuals that agreed to not follow the statutes on the PFD, I want to make sure that these are the same individuals that agreed not to follow the 90-day statutory session that, um, are the same individuals that had no problem taking back per diem last year.”
Dunleavy’s team had obviously done some homework on canned attacks against the two representatives, but it probably wouldn’t get a passing grade.
Sure, Fields and Tomkins did vote for the rollback of ethics rules in Senate Bill 89, but that measure was authored by Dunleavy legislative ally Sen. Shelley Hughes, supported by a majority of legislators regardless of affiliation and one he could have vetoed if he had such a problem with it.
And, yes, whether they voted for the budget containing a smaller PFD but it’s a stretch to blame an extended session on them when nearly 30 days of session were spent at a standstill while Republicans representatives struggled to organize.
But it’s the claim that both representatives “had no problem” taking back per diem after the Alaska Legislative Council voted to allow legislators to retroactively collect per diem for the 26 days beyond the 121-day session it took to pass a budget that is outright false.
Two-thirds of all legislators requested some kind of per diem but Kreiss-Tomkins was not among them.
While legislators received an average payout of $3,647—two key Dunleavy allies Sen. Mia Costello and Rep. David Eastman claimed the maximum of 26 days of per diem totaling $7,852—Kreiss-Tomkins was among four Democrats who collected zero.
Fields did collect retroactive per diem, claiming six days for a total of $1,812, which puts him on the lower end of legislators who made a claim.
In total, at best it was a glancing blow on the legislators that said more about Dunleavy than the legislators. None of the criticisms—which could not only be applied to most of his legislative allies but more convincingly applied to them—ought to stick with anyone who’s been following the story.
As for the contract, which was the topic of the question, Dunleavy said his office—which is at the root of the controversy—would be looking into whether it did anything wrong.
“To answer your question, we’re looking into all of the details surrounding that contract and other contracts and once we are finished with our deep dive, we will come out and will have a presser on it,” he promised, launching into another retread of his attacks on the representatives, before adding, “We’re looking into it and we will get to the bottom of whether there was anything done improper and we will have a press conference on that.”
The Department of Law told legislators this week it plans to review the contract.
Why does his administration need to look into the details of a contract from his administration, a reporter asked.
“Because it was in AIDEA, because it’s a different corporation,” he said.
So, he’s saying the governor’s office didn’t have anything to do with the contract?
Dunleavy couldn’t be so sure.
“We’re gonna find every piece and every detail. We want to be 100 percent sure because the governor’s office is a big office,” he said. “I know there’s the implication that there was a sweetheart deal with an individual. We want to make sure that there’s nothing been overlooked and there’s been no mistakes. We want to look into this thoroughly.”
What he was sure about, though, was his dislike of Reps. Fields and Kreiss-Tomkins asking questions.
“They really need to take a look at their own actions,” Dunleavy said. “I would hope folks in this room would ask them those same questions. We will get back to you on that.”