15 years after VECO scandal, Stevens’ new oil job renews old ethics questions

Ben Stevens, center, stands with two other top aides to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy at a news conference at the Capitol in 2019. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

In 2007, Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin signed sweeping ethics reforms into law, in what she touted as a necessary response to the VECO corruption scandal that ensnared several state lawmakers.

Among the lawmakers investigated in that scandal was then-Senate president Ben Stevens, son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Ben Stevens’ Senate office was twice searched by the FBI, and two oil industry executives said they had paid him bribes. Stevens always denied wrongdoing and was never charged with a crime.

RELATED: Ben Stevens once left the Alaska Senate in disgrace. Now he’s Gov. Dunleavy’s top deputy.

More than a decade later, Stevens is now renewing questions about those very same ethics laws in his new job as an executive at oil company ConocoPhillips — a position he started March 1, just three days after leaving one of the most powerful jobs in state government: Chief of staff to GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Stevens, in a phone interview Monday, said he’s carefully followed state ethics laws in his job transition. And last month, Dunleavy quietly signed an ethics waiver allowing Stevens to work on a Conoco project that was the subject of discussions in the governor’s administration while Stevens was still chief of staff.

But Stevens also acknowledged the Dunleavy administration has opened an ethics investigation into his job change, in response to a formal request by an advocacy group. Some lawmakers are now asking whether the 2007 ethics reforms need to be updated again to more effectively guard against conflicts of interest.

Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

“Despite whatever technical detail you could read if you squint your eyes and hold your head sideways, I don’t think anyone should be allowed to go from one of the three most powerful jobs in the state of Alaska, where inevitably oil tax policy comes through, to go be an oil lobbyist without so much as two weeks in between — let alone the two years that the law calls for,” said Juneau Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl.

“Not the decisionmaker”

Alaska’s ethics laws bar public officials from working for private companies on matters that were under consideration by their agency for two years after leaving their state job, if the official participated “personally and substantially through the exercise of official action.” Those matters could include cases, contracts, regulations or legislative bills, the law says.

But the ethics laws also allow top executive branch officials to waive those requirements if they find it’s not “adverse to the public interest.”

Conoco had previously said that Stevens would not seek an ethics waiver in his new job because, as the company’s vice president for external affairs and transportation, he would not work on any issues that might present a conflict.

RELATED: Alaska Gov. Dunleavy’s administration says it’s ensuring “ethical transition” of chief of staff to ConocoPhillips job

But less than two weeks later, Stevens sent Dunleavy’s administration a waiver request.

In a letter to Attorney General Treg Taylor dated March 12, Stevens asked that Dunleavy’s administration waive the requirements of the ethics law for his advocacy on Conoco’s behalf for its multi-billion-dollar Willow project, which is planned on federal land on Alaska’s North Slope.

Environmental groups have filed lawsuits challenging federal authorizations for the Willow development. On April 15, Dunleavy’s administration filed a motion to intervene in the litigation in the project’s defense.

Stevens, in his chief of staff job, was “aware of discussions” about the state’s possible intervention in the case, Dunleavy and Taylor wrote in the waiver they ultimately granted. But, the waiver argues, the actual decision to join the litigation was only under consideration by the Department of Law, the attorney general and the governor — not by Stevens.

In an interview, Stevens argued that as chief of staff he did not “personally or substantially” participate in any decisions at all, let alone any specific to Conoco, saying he served instead as a “conduit of information” to Dunleavy.

A white man with a suit and red tie
Ben Stevens talks with legislators at the Capitol after Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s State of the State speech in 2020. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

“A chief of staff is a facilitator of a decision,” Stevens said. “Not the decisionmaker.”

In his request, Stevens wrote that he viewed a waiver as unnecessary, but was asking for one “out of an abundance of caution, and given the degree of public misunderstanding” of state ethics law.

Dunleavy and Attorney General Treg Taylor both signed off on the waiver a few weeks later, in early April. They wrote Stevens did not need the approval but granted it nonetheless, justifying it by writing that his work for Conoco — recruiting local boroughs’ legal and political support for the project — is in the public interest.

Public outreach and education about the benefits of resource development, mitigation of environmental impacts and local tax revenue is “aligned and consistent with the public interest of the state of Alaska,” they wrote.

“The state of Alaska also benefits from the development of the Willow project,” they added.

Ethics laws “you could drive an oil tanker through”

Both Stevens’ request and the waiver itself were only recently released, in response to a public records request by the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, the advocacy organization which asked Dunleavy’s administration to conduct a formal investigation into the legality of Stevens’ new job.

Stevens said he’s aware that the state is investigating the group’s allegations. But he referenced his previous experiences, arguing that he’s well-aware of his legal and ethical obligations and is upholding them.

“Nobody in this state alive has been investigated for alleged wrongdoing more than me,” Stevens said. “The allegations against me (are) by political opposition — it’s been that way forever. It’s not going to change. I’m not going to change. I’m not going to violate the law — I follow the rules. I know what the rules are.”

He added that he has not spoken to Dunleavy since leaving the chief of staff job in February.

In interviews Monday, Kiehl and another Democratic senator both questioned the legal argument that Stevens did not need a waiver.

“My immediate reaction when I heard he was going to take that job was, ‘He can’t do that,’” said Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski. “I would find it hard to believe that the chief of staff did not participate, personally and substantially, in the exercise of trying to have Willow approved for federal permits, or to have local support.”

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski. (Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Other observers were similarly skeptical the law allowed Stevens’ move, though they also argued the law should be tightened.

“We have ethics statutes in the state that you could drive an oil tanker through, and we’ve been driving them through for years,” said Ray Metcalfe, a former state legislator and longtime Stevens critic. “The laws leave a lot to be desired, and the Legislature doesn’t want to fix it.”

Kiehl, the Juneau Democratic senator, said the waiver’s approval has also called into question his support for Taylor, the attorney general, whose confirmation vote is scheduled for Tuesday.

At one of his confirmation hearings, in early April, Kiehl asked Taylor whether he or the Department of Law had counseled Stevens on his legal obligations in his new post at Conoco, and on when he would need a waiver.

At that point, Dunleavy had already signed Stevens’ waiver two days earlier, and Taylor would sign it a day later, according to the dates on their signatures on the document.

Treg Taylor, then the deputy attorney general, walks into a news conference trailed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in 2019. (Nat Herz / Alaska Public Media)

But Taylor, in his response to Kiehl, made no reference to Stevens’ waiver request, nor the pending waiver itself, saying instead that “as issues arise in Mr. Stevens’ work, he will approach the Department of Law and ask for advice.”

Kiehl, in a phone interview Monday, said that Taylor’s response indicated “that this was still a hypothetical thing, off in the future.”

“He didn’t make any false statements in his testimony,” Kiehl said. “But he definitely left that impression.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Law, Charlotte Rand, said state law barred Taylor from publicly discussing Stevens’ request for the waiver until after it was issued. She cited a section of the statute that makes requests for ethics advice confidential.

“This also serves the public policy behind this portion of the Ethics Act, by allowing current and former employees to make candid requests to avoid violating the law in the first place, instead of having to address or remedy issues after the fact,” Rand said.

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He's been a reporter in Alaska for a decade, and is currently reporting for Alaska Public Media. Find more of his work by subscribing to his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com. Reach him at natherz@gmail.com.

Previous articleHouse passes budget, leaving potential gap from federal relief rules
Next articleAlaska Gov. Dunleavy’s top rural affairs advisor departs, and tribal and fishing leaders wonder why