Hearing concludes regarding French’s fate at head of state oil and gas watchdog agency

AOGCC chair Hollis French responds to questions at a public hearing on Feb. 8, 2019. (Photo: Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk.)

A three-day public hearing ended Friday regarding Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s bid to remove Hollis French from his position as chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

According to a letter from the governor’s office obtained Thursday by Alaska Public Media, there are five charges against French, described as follows: “chronic, unexcused absenteeism,” “browbeating fellow commissioners,” “publicly undermining the work of AOGCC,” “security breaches” and “failure to perform routine AOGCC work.”

“Alaskans reasonably expect, and have the right to, commissioners, agency heads and other high-ranking officials that perform the work they are paid to do, and who do not actively undermine agencies they represent,” Dunleavy writes in the letter. “I believe that your conduct, as described herein, falls well short of those standards.”

French disputes the charges. He further claims the current situation was spurred by a disagreement over the limits of the commission’s jurisdiction, precipitated by a gas leak in Cook Inlet two years ago.

During the hearing on Friday, the state’s attorney, Dana Burke, questioned French about the governor’s accusations, including whether French was out of the office too frequently to perform his duties well.

“Being available by text, or email, or phone when you’re at home, say, watching the World Series, that’s not the same thing as being there, is it?” Burke questioned.

“It is not the same thing,” French answered.

Later in the hearing, French’s attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald, asked French whether his time out of the office was spent in service of his role as the commission member representing the public.

“As the public representative commissioner, did you conduct a fair amount of your work on behalf of the agency outside the office, either office hours or outside the confines of the physical building?” Fitzgerald asked.

“Yes, I did,” said French.

“And was that necessary as it related to what you understood to be your role as the public representative commissioner?” Fitzgerald asked.

“I believed it was,” French replied.

Another issue discussed at Friday’s hearing was French’s sharing of the location of data on the one exploratory well drilled in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with an Anchorage Daily News reporter, who later wrote a story on the subject. According a story published Friday in the Anchorage Daily News, another commissioner, Cathy Foerster, also shared the location of the ANWR well data with the reporter.

Dunleavy’s letter said French’s disclosure “breached critical AOGCC security protocols.”

Fitzgerald is arguing that sharing the location of the well data isn’t unlawful.

“He never revealed the data,” Fitzgerald said in a phone interview after the hearing, adding he isn’t aware of any document demonstrating that where the well data is kept should be confidential.

In an interview after the hearing, French said he believes the current situation stems from tensions over the limits of the commission’s power, precipitated by a 2017 incident when a pipeline operated by Texas-based oil company Hilcorp leaked gas into Cook Inlet for months.

French thought his agency should have oversight over incidents like the gas leak, putting him at odds with his fellow commissioners. Eventually, he said, he wrote a letter to former Gov. Bill Walker “and asked him for some help.”

“And that provoked my colleagues in a bad way,” French said, adding, “there’s an email in front of me that indicates that after I sent that letter, one of the other commissioners said, ‘we may have a for-cause case,’ meaning, now we have a reason to kick him off the commission.”

“It’s about what we do as a watchdog agency,” French said. “My view is a watchdog has to roam the whole property. And their view is, ‘no, we’re going to put the watchdog on a short chain.’ And I just disagreed with that.”

French is an attorney and former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. He was appointed to the commission by Walker in 2016.

Foerster was at Friday’s hearing sitting alongside Burke, the state’s attorney. Foerster declined to comment.

By law, commissioners can only be fired for “cause,” including “incompetence, neglect of duty or misconduct in office.”

Attorney Tim Petumenos presided over the hearing at Dunleavy’s request. Petumenos will prepare a report covering the facts of the case for Dunleavy, which the governor can use to make his decision. Ultimately, he said, it is up to Dunleavy whether French is removed.

Reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed to this story.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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