Why former Permanent Fund Corp. director believes firing was ‘political retribution’

Angela Rodell gives a presentation on the permanent fund in January 2018 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The abrupt firing of Permanent Fund Corporation Director Angela Rodell in December surprised and concerned many Alaskans, including some lawmakers. Senate President Peter Micciche said this week that he was surprised by Rodell’s firing.

Rodell says her firing was political retribution. Micciche said he will reserve judgment until a legislative hearing on the issue Monday.

Permanent Fund Board Chair Craig Richards defended firing Rodell in a letter to the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee Thursday. He wrote that the trustees’ decision was driven by what would best support the fund’s investments and that it was not based on political or other outside considerations.

He also said that the trustees would provide testimony to the committee on Monday.

James Brooks covers state politics for the Anchorage Daily News and has been reporting on this story. He joined Alaska Public Media’s Lori Townsend to talk about his conversation this week with Angela Rodell.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

James Brooks: When I talked to her this week, she seemed pretty angry about what had happened and upset. She has built a reputation as a top-quality manager both nationally and internationally among these types of funds, and she is really concerned about the effect the firing could have on that reputation.

Lori Townsend: So specifically, why does Rodell believe the board fired her? What would the political retribution be for?

James Brooks: As she sees it, her position has been — at the instruction of the board — to advise the Legislature against spending too much from the fund, against breaking rules that were set in place in 2018. The governor has repeatedly proposed plans to spend more than those rules in order to boost the amount of the permanent fund dividend. And so that has put her testimony at odds with what the administration officials have been testifying in front of the Legislature about. I should note that the latest budget proposal from the governor’s office does not require any overdraws from the permanent fund, but prior proposals have.

Lori Townsend: Well, in the midst of this back and forth about why she was fired, you were able to get a copy of Rodell’s performance review. What does that show?

James Brooks: It shows that the board felt that Rodell was not implementing its wishes and that they weren’t getting a full picture from her. One board comment said question the veracity of her reporting. But as Rodell told me — that complaint, that note, doesn’t cite any specific examples. And as far as she’s concerned, she’s been following the board’s directions.

Lori Townsend: If you looked back on her other past reviews, did you find other similar complaints? Or what did you find?

James Brooks: I’d found similar complaints in recent years going farther back to when she was hired several years ago, her reviews were glowing, and really praise-worthy. More recently, the board members have questioned what they’ve been hearing from her and feel like they’re being led down a certain path that — and just not getting a full picture from her. What I thought was interesting was that the latest review, though, was actually a fraction of a point higher than some prior reviews. So this wasn’t her worst ever review.

Lori Townsend: In your work in reporting on this, James, did you get a response from anyone on the board or the Dunleavy administration?

James Brooks: The board has declined to comment on this citing the confidentiality of their discussions in executive session. And so I really don’t know why their opinions of her have soured beyond what’s been reported in the personnel file, in the reviews that have been shared. So there’s not really specific examples. And so that’s a big question that I still have. The governor’s office has explicitly denied that the governor played any role in this decision. It said that it came as a surprise to him and that he didn’t participate in the decision to fire Rodell.

Lori Townsend: The Legislative Budget & Audit Committee is taking up this matter on Monday and a hearing. What do you know about the scope of that hearing? Will it be open to the public for comment? Or is this more of a fact-finding effort? What can you tell us?

James Brooks: I’ve talked to the chair of that committee, Senator Natasha von Imhof, the Republican from Anchorage, and she said the goal of this meeting is fact-finding. And then if they don’t get the answers that they need, then they’ll follow up with additional meetings.

Lori Townsend: Can you speak to how high the stakes are and understanding what happened here?

James Brooks: This really matters for everyone in Alaska. The permanent fund and the revenues from the permanent fund account for two-thirds of the state’s general purpose revenue. That’s the money that pays for services, whether it’s schools or roads, as well as the dividend. Oil, which used to be the number one source of revenue hasn’t been the number one source for several years now. It’s the permanent fund. And so the ability of the permanent fund to keep earning more than the state is spending is absolutely critical and that’s why there’s so much attention on who’s managing that fund. Because if this struggle endangers the ability of the fund, to continue earning more than is being spent, then that’s a really significant problem for the State of Alaska.

Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her news tips and program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at ltownsend@alaskapublic.org or call 907-550-8452.

Previous articleAmbler Metals says it’s nearly ready to apply for permit to mine in Northwest Alaska
Next articleFor Tongans in Alaska, a fretful wait for news after eruption and tsunami