A concerted effort was made to damage the reputation of the former chief of staff to Gov. Mike Dunleavy. That was the conclusion of a damning report from an independent counsel who looked into the complaints by Alaska Public Interest Research Group, or AKPIRG, and found them completely lacking in substance. In fact, the independent counsel all but called the AKPIRG accusations a political witch-hunt.
In March, AKPIRG lodged an executive ethics complaint against Ben Stevens, who left the executive branch to take a job in government relations with ConocoPhillips. For weeks, the AKPIRG complaint made the news cycle and left-leaning blogs, while it was being investigated by independent attorney John J. Tiemessen at the request of the Alaska Personnel Board.
The complaint requested an ethics investigation over whether Stevens and the governor violated the Executive Branch Ethics Act and whether Stevens was allowed to go to work in the private sector and under what conditions, with which disclosures.
Tiemessen made it clear in his response that the AKPIRG complaint itself was a form of intentional reputation assassination on the part of the nonprofit group, which states itself to be nonpartisan.
AKPIRG is, in reality, a surrogate arm for the Alaska Democratic Party.
“Indeed, Mr. Stevens has already sought and obtained a waiver for work on the Willow Project, in the future if they are required under the Act. Additionally, although Mr. Stevens interacts with various government entities as part of his job at ConocoPhillips Alaska, Independent Counsel finds that Mr. Stevens is not engaged in prohibited lobbying activity as that term is defined in Alaska Statutes. We therefore find no breach of the Executive Ethics Act by either Ben Stevens or Governor Dunleavy,” Tiemessen wrote.
Reviewing the facts of Stevens leaving the public sector to take work in the private sector, Tiemessen said AKPIRG had made many erroneous conclusions about Stevens and his role as chief of staff:
“AKPIRG alleges that Mr. Stevens ‘was involved in numerous cases, proceedings, applications, contracts, determinations, proposals, and countless considerations of legislative bills, resolutions, constitutional amendments, and other legislative measures, proposals, considerations, [and] adoptions of administrative regulations. AKPIRG further claims that in his employment with ConocoPhillips, Mr. Stevens is responsible for ‘government relations’ which AKPIRG equates to ‘lobbying,’ and suggests that Mr. Stevens is, or will inevitably, be working on behalf of ConocoPhillips on matters in which he participated personally and substantially as a public officer,” Tiemessen wrote.
AKPIRG wrote that Stevens going to work for ConocoPhillips was “market tampering.” However, if Stevens had gone to work as a barista, it’s highly unlikely AKPIRG would have attack him and the governor with such brute force. The mission to destroy Stevens was based on bias against him and Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“The complaint also contains speculation about what Mr. Stevens might be doing at ConocoPhillips, including possible lobbying. However thin, there was a wisp of a hint of a scintilla of facts that if true, could constitute a violation of the Ethics Act,” Tiemessen wrote, in his lengthy report.
“AKPIRG assumes that since the Governor is the chief executive, the Office of the Governor and the Chief of staff are intimately involved in all minutiae of state government. Based on the undersigned’s interview with Mr. Stevens, this is not the case. Much of the day-to-day operation of the government of the State of Alaska is handled by state employees, managers, directors, and commissioners. Only at the cabinet level is there significant interaction with the Office of the Governor,” Tiemessen wrote, describing the chief of staff position as a malleable role that is different under every governor.
Stevens’ role as chief of staff was that of a senior manager, in charge of making sure the executive branch was being run efficiently and that work was getting done correctly and on time.
“When pressed, Mr. Stevens could recall knowledge of an attempted resolution of unpaid oil and gas tax credit issue. As a producer, ConocoPhillips Alaska is not involved in these credits. Mr. Stevens also had knowledge of the potential effect the BP sale to Hillcorp could have on oil and gas corporate tax revenue and methods. Again, this knowledge would not have involved ConocoPhillips Alaska. Mr. Stevens also recalled that there were a handful of calls between his predecessor and the Governor, mostly arranging meetings related to Covid-related slowdown and shutdown of operations,” the report said.
Stevens’ responsibilities with ConocoPhillips Alaska include government relations, village outreach, community investment, media and advertising, including its interests in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) and various pipelines that connect to TAPS. He serves “on the management team for ConocoPhillips Polar Tanker Fleet.
The gist of the lengthy report from the independent investigation can be summed up by these phrases:
“AKPIRG alleges that Mr. Stevens …” followed by, “In fact, it appears that the exact opposite has occurred…” and “the complaint demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding…” on the part of AKPIRG.
Tiemessen then goes on to spank AKPIRG for politicizing their complaint by releasing details to the media time and again.
“This investigation is confidential under AS 39.52.340. However, as it has in the past, AKPIRG released and publicized its complaint via press and at least one online blogger. Although this complaint resulted no findings of misconduct, reputational damage to the subjects of this complaint, whether intended or not, has already occurred. There is a common expression, often attributed to Winston Churchill but more accurately to Cordell Hull (and historically likely to Johnathan Swift) “A lie will gallop halfway around the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.” AS 39.52.340 is designed specifically to prevent this problem. There appears to be a strategy for political opponents to file an ethics complaint, weaponize it by releasing it to the press, and then enjoy a series of press cycles in sympathetic press outlets based solely on the publication of the complaint,” Tiemessen noted.
“The ‘facts’ were then filtered through a misinterpretation of the Ethics Act, specifically who has the duty to request a waiver under AS 39.52.180(c), and to what extent employment constitutes a ‘matter’ under AS 39.52.180(a),” he continued in his report.
“Unfortunately, the ethics investigation process takes time to ‘pull its breeches on.’ After the complaint is assigned to counsel, research must be completed to make a probable cause determination. If probable cause is found, the subject of the complaint gets a copy of the complaint and has an opportunity to respond. In addition to that response, counsel must conduct detailed legal research and factual investigation which can include, as in the present case, interviews and the gathering of documentary evidence. Because the Executive Branch Ethics Act has little-to-no judicial interpretation, more challenging research into areas such as legislative history must often occur. Depending on the complexity of the matter being investigated, the process can take many months. Unfortunately, due to the time required to properly investigate, research, analyze and resolve a complaint, the reputational damage caused by the initial illegal release of the complaint, even if it ultimately proven to be unsupported by facts or law, can be permanent.”
Tiemessen’s report on the ethics of Stevens and Dunleavy harmed the credibility of AKPIRG itself, pulling the veil back to expose it as a leftwing conspiracy theory group, rather than a public interest research group.