Attorney General-appointee Treg Taylor told the House Judiciary Committee that Ben Stevens, who left state service as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s former chief of staff to work as a top executive for ConocoPhillips last month, can be trusted to monitor his work for potential violations of the state ethics act.
The statement came during Taylor’s confirmation hearing, a wide-ranging hearing that touched on sexual abuse, the resignations of the previous two attorneys general and Dunleavy administrations losing track record in the courts. Alaska law bars state employees from immediately going to jobs where they might be using inside information to lobby and influence the government.
The Attorney General can approve a waiver around this but both ConocoPhillips and the Dunleavy administration have argued that there’s no overlap in work so therefore no waiver is needed. Taylor said he wants to take a case-by-case approach, trusting Stevens to flag potential conflicts as they arise.
“The duty lies with Ben Stevens. Ben Stevens knows what the duty is, knows what his responsibilities are under the law as it relates to these waivers,” Taylor said. “If he encounters a question in his mind, he knows that he can contact the Department of Law any time within the next two years and speak with our ethics attorneys on whether or not a waiver is needed in that specific situation.”
Taylor argued that such an approach is better than the blanked approach that what has been done in the past with other departures from state to private jobs.
“What you’ll probably see over the course of the next couple years is a series of these conflict waivers either be addressed or put into effect to allow Ben Stevens to work in his job duties, if it is a benefit to the state,” he said. “My guess is we’re going to see some in the near future.”
Legislators were skeptical of the approach, and Rep. Matt Claman noted that the obvious issue would be any potential legislative action on oil taxes, an issue that ConocoPhillips would be particularly interested in. How would the state know what is and isn’t permissible if the actions are happening outside of the state offices?
“One of the areas that I find a little bit troubling is that we’re relying on Mr. Stevens to know what he should or shouldn’t do. I like the notion that he does, but I don’t know and he’s not in front of us today,” he said. “Isn’t it really not what Mr. Stevens thinks, but what the state thinks Mr. Stevens’ involvement was in making a decision like that?”
Taylor elaborated, noting that the state does have good knowledge of Stevens’ work with the Dunleavy administration and could step in if a problem arises.
“That’s exactly right, there are certain circumstances where the state has knowledge of his material involvement in things, so we’d certainly step in and get a letter from the Department of Law saying to cease and desist,” he said. “You can apply for a waiver but until it’s granted, we need you to stop in your actions.”
Taylor noted that the existing practice of offering employees blanket ethics waivers while heading out the door didn’t serve the state’s best interest and a case-by-case approach will better examine the new work and the old work for potential conflicts. He also said the extent of the work that Stevens did on the job will matter, noting that there’s a difference between forwarding an email and more hands-on policy work.
“I think that better protects the state instead of granting a blanket waiver and away he goes,” he said. “I just think that’s a dangerous position for the state to be in given the confidential nature of the things that probably he was involved in.”
Claman noted that when it comes to oil taxes, it’s been his impression the Dunleavy administration has done little more than oppose any and all taxes proposals and, “There may be nothing particularly problematic depending on what was or wasn’t discussed in the administration.”
The Alaska Public Interest Research Group has formally requested the Department of Law investigate Stevens’ change in jobs, arguing that the handling so far “betrays the public trust and interest, creates an unfair advantage, and is corrupt.”
Why it matters
On the one hand, Taylor’s plan to approach potential conflicts of interest on a case-by-case basis makes some sense rather than issuing a blanket waiver on the front end of the job. On the other, there’s the obvious issue of policing such an approach when it relies on the individual to police their own activity: How does the state know if and when conduct breaches the state’s ethics laws and undermines the public interest? How does anyone outside of the administration or ConocoPhillips know everything’s as ethical as they say it is?
The underlying issue here is that Alaska’s ethics laws are just about as toothless as they’ve ever been. While Taylor’s explanation is reasonable on its face, he also offered a lot of technicalities—specifically about what kind of state work would qualify as a potential conflict of interest—that would give plenty of leeway to the individual, administration and Department of Law to decide what is and what isn’t a conflict of interest.
Instead of a bright line on ethical conflicts, we’re instead left with a more frustrating, “It depends on who’s calling the shots.”