Ben Stevens, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s former chief of staff, had minimal email contact with officials from ConocoPhillips before he left his state post to take an executive job at the multinational oil and gas company, according to a trove of his correspondence released this week.
Interest groups and some Alaska lawmakers have been scrutinizing Stevens’ move from state service to the private sector, saying the quick transition raises questions about whether Stevens is complying with state ethics laws.
But in his two years working for Dunleavy as policy advisor and, later, chief of staff, Stevens received just a dozen emails from Conoco employees at his state address.
Most of them were connected to Alaska Chamber of Commerce meetings a Conoco official was helping to organize.
Two more invited Stevens to a reception with the company’s chief executive, then canceled it because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The other three came from Conoco’s Alaska-based government affairs executive, Scott Jepsen, whom Stevens replaced earlier this year.
In one, Jepsen asked Stevens to call him. In another, Jepsen said he’d be on vacation and would miss a meeting between state and Conoco official. In the third, Jepsen forwarded Stevens the company’s quarterly earnings report.
“There’s nothing there,” Stevens said in a brief phone call Friday.
Also on Friday, state officials released a new independent counsel report dismissing an ethics complaint filed against Stevens by the Alaska Public Interest Research Group.
AKPIRG had requested the attorney general open an investigation into the circumstances around Stevens’ departure, alleging multiple violations of state ethics laws.
For two years after leaving their state jobs, the Executive Branch Ethics Act bars public officials from working at private companies on matters which were under consideration by their former state agency — 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.
The ethics laws also allow state government officials to waive those requirements if they find it’s not “adverse to the public interest.”
Initially, Conoco said Stevens would not need such a waiver because he wouldn’t work on any issues that could present a conflict. Later, the Dunleavy administration granted Stevens a waiver at his request, which Stevens said was “out of an abundance of caution, and given the degree of public misunderstanding” of state ethics laws.
Because AKPIRG’s complaint against Stevens also included allegations against Dunleavy, it was handled by an independent counsel who works for the state personnel board, Fairbanks attorney John Tiemessen.
In his sharply worded, 20-page report dated June 4, Tiemessen concluded that neither Stevens nor Dunleavy violated Alaska ethics laws. And he criticized AKPIRG for filing a complaint that he described as “based almost exclusively on hearsay statements and supposition of wrongdoing, with only minimal first-hand evidence.”
Tiemessen also suggested the Legislature change Alaska’s ethics laws to bar groups that file complaints from publicizing them, citing the potential for permanent “reputational damage” for the subjects of complaints later proven to be unsupported by fact or law. He noted that the Legislative Ethics Act — separate from the ethics laws that apply to Alaska’s executive branch — includes criminal penalties.
AKPIRG shot back with its own prepared statement from Executive Director Veri di Suvero, which accused Tiemessen of showing an “overwhelming sense of confirmation bias” and distorting AKPIRG’s motivations in his report.
“The public should not be conceptualized as a nuisance when it fears the government is self-serving,” di Suvero said. “It is also incredibly excessive and inappropriate for the independent counsel to even suggest that penalties, especially criminal penalties, should be a considered statutory change to silence public participation and villainize complainants.”
Stevens’ emails, meanwhile, were released last week nearly three months after Alaska Public Media’s initial request, under the Alaska Public Records Act, for copies of all email correspondence between Stevens and anyone with a Conoco email address.
The relatively small number of documents released suggests Stevens did not have extensive contacts with Conoco executives while working in Dunleavy’s administration.
But they only represent one mode of communication. Any text messages or phone calls Stevens might have exchanged with Conoco employees were not included in the request.
The records also do not include email correspondence related to Conoco Stevens might have exchanged with other state officials while in state service.
In Stevens’ April waiver, Dunleavy and Attorney General Treg Taylor wrote Stevens was aware of discussions about the state intervening in a lawsuit challenging one of Conoco’s projects, the Willow development. There’s no reference to those discussions or the Willow development in Stevens’ emails with Conoco officials.
The email signature Stevens used for his state job also indicates he likely approached his correspondence with a keen awareness his words could ultimately become public.
It reads: “Note: Every email I send or receive is subject to public disclosure under the Alaska Public Records Act.”
This story has been updated.