In 2008, the New York Times swooped into the state after Sarah Palin’s veep announcement and wrote about how many friends she had hired as governor. “The Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government,” the paper wrote. Many of us already knew this to be the case, but we collectively shrugged our shoulders. This kind of stuff happens in Alaska all the time, in a small state with a shallow talent pool, in a place so far away from the rest of the country.
Successful people, in a position to do so, do often hire their friends and people in their social circles. Generally there’s nothing wrong with that. It can get a little murky, however, when you’re in public office and your friends and their friends are being paid with public money.
To be clear: just because something’s murky doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. But it is something to watch. And Gov. Sean Parnell’s penchant for hiring friends and being good to friends of friends, no matter how talented and well qualified, needs many more eyes on it than it currently has.
Parnell was a legislator from 1992 to 2002. It’s said that during that time among his closest friends were Sen. Pete Kellly, former Sen. Gene Therriault and former Rep. Mark Hanley.
Below is a list of what has happened to them and some of their staff since:
- Sen. Pete Kelly left the Legislature in 2003 to work as a university lobbyist. Parnell hired him in 2009 as a special assistant in the governor’s office shortly after Palin resigned. Parnell supported Kelly in his bid to get back into the Legislature in 2012.
- Back when Parnell and Kelly hung out together as legislators, Parnell got to know Kelly’s legislative aide Bryan Butcher. After winning the election, Parnell hired Butcher to be his commissioner of Revenue. More recently, Parnell moved Butcher to Alaska House Finance Corp. where he’ll serve as executive director, making a whopping $250,000 a year. It should be noted that Butcher’s qualifications include a degree in speech communication from Oregon University.
- Shortly after Palin resigned, Parnell hired former Sen. Gene Therriault as a special adviser on energy. The hiring was ultimately deemed illegal by Alaska’s attorney general because Therriault had not yet been out of the Legislature for a year prior to the hire. Therriault then went to work for Golden Valley Electric in Fairbanks, where, among other things, he worked to try to get the state to help finance a natural gas liquefaction plant on the North Slope. After being liquefied, the gas would be trucked to Fairbanks. In 2012, Therriault left Golden Valley and Parnell appointed him to be the deputy director of Alaska’s Energy Authority, a division of Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA. In both of these roles, Therriault was instrumental in getting Parnell’s support for the trucking plan and the liquefaction plant. A bill was passed last legislative session which included $362.5 million of financing for the plan, including giving AIDEA the authority to offer $275 million in low interest financing.
- Therriault’s staff did pretty well too. Joe Balash for one, went from Therriault’s office to work as a special assistant to Parnell. He then moved to DNR as deputy commissioner and is now the acting commissioner. Heather Brakes, also from Therriault’s office, is Parnell’s legislative director. Former Therriault staffer Wilda Laughlin was the DHSS legislative liaison until a recent ill-fated, hot mic issue. She’s still at HSS, but in a less high profile position.
- Then there’s former Rep. Mark Hanley. He left the Legislature in 1998 to work for big bucks in the oil industry; however, he also worked closely with Parnell as a kitchen cabinet adviser and helped him prepare his first budget. Possibly coincidentally, in 2011 Mark’s brother Mike was appointed as Commissioner to the Department of Education. Kip Knudson who worked for Hanley was hired to run the state’s airports and later took over Parnell’s Washington D.C. office when John Katz retired. Michelle Toohey also worked for Hanley. She was in Parnell’s press office until moving to Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell’s office, where she is chief of staff.
It’s often the case that politicians hire friends and reward political support and loyalty. But just because it happens all the time doesn’t mean that we should collectively shrug our shoulders.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org