The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee called in Alaska Permanent Fund Board Chairman Craig Richards for grilling on Monday. LBA Committee Chair Sen. Natasha von Imhof characterized it as a fact-finding mission, rather than an investigation, into the board’s firing of Permanent Fund CEO Angela Rodell, who says she was let go due to “political retribution.” Von Imhof cautioned members of the committee to reserve judgment.
Since the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation board voted to fire executive director Rodell in December, some state lawmakers and many news and opinion writers in the mainstream media have contended or insinuated the decision was politically motivated. Rodell has threatened to sue over her dismissal.
For his part, Richards said the hearing itself was political. The corporation is an independent agency of the State of Alaska.
On Monday, members of the committee tried to get Richard to explain the board’s reasoning in detail. Richards, a former Alaska attorney general, maintained that Rodell was an at-will state employee and he would not discuss specifics of her performance.
“You brought up the chairman of the board to grill me pretty good, I might say, about essentially a personnel decision involving an at-will employee,” he said. “It’s your right to do it, but … you know, there’s politics going both ways here,” Richards said to the committee.
Richards was appointed to the Permanent Fund Corporation Board of Trustees by former Gov. Bill Walker, and was reappointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in July of 2021.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Richards said, referring to the overwhelming board vote to fire Rodell. Only one of the six members of the board voted to retain Rodell, who was fired as Commissioner of Revenue by Gov. Bill Walker, but later hired by Walker as CEO of the Permanent Fund. “Obviously, there were some performance issues and we made a change.”
Senate President Peter Micciche said trustees need to be focused on growing the fund. It has had record growth during a stock market in which most funds experienced meteoric rise.
“Do we actively separate politics from maximum returns, which is your mission, your vision, because a lot of this sort of reeks of something else,” Micciche said.
Some members of the committee maintained that with such successful growth of the fund, Rodell should be retained and rewarded.
“At the end of the day, it’s important to understand the executive director did not handle investments. Ultimately, it is the CIO that is responsible,” Richards noted.
Richards pointed out there were negative performance reviews of Rodell going back four years. Her entire personnel file was released to the media last week and is rife with instances that demonstrated a growing break in the trust relationship with the board, stretching back to at least 2019.
“I am truly shocked that I am here. This is, this is a new one to me. We have an at-will employee that reports to the board who years of documented evidence demonstrates that there were trust problems going both ways between the board and the executive director,” Richards said.
“As the executive director, she was a critical part of the team, and she did a lot of things very well that contributed to the fund’s success … Some of the administrative stuff was really good for the fund, and that helped the fund, and it contributed to the fund. My point was only that her responsibility was not the direct supervision of the investments,” Richards said.
Rep. Andy Josephson an Anchorage Democrat and lawyer, cautioned that Rodell may be able to sue the state and win, which could cost the state money.
“We’re not here, prepared today to go into an in-depth, detailed analysis of here’s everything she did right and everything she did wrong,” Richards said at one point.
“That’s most unfortunate, because you had a month to prepare,” responded Chairwoman von Imhof.
“Ms. Rodell was a highly compensated executive-level employee, and at the end of the day it is the board’s prerogative,” Richard said.
Anchorage Democrat Rep. Chris Tuck, the vice chairman of the committee, commented that just because you can do something, like fire someone, doesn’t mean you should: “And that’s what we’d like to find out, is whether you should.”
Richards remarked that the committee itself is now politicizing the job of the Permanent Fund CEO, new territory for the Legislature.
“What is best for the fund is to move on,” he said. Richards had already answered the committee in writing, and revealed nothing more in the Monday grilling than he had already written to the committee.
The over two hour meeting of LBA can be watched at this link.