Commentary

Down the rabbit hole

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).” ― Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

Maybe there are reasons the snowshoe hares seem to be running plainly visible everywhere in the snow-short forests of the Chugach Mountain foothills above Alaska’s largest city this year. The ubiquitous white rabbits might be trying to tell us something about a state where politics and journalism seem to have converged on author Lewis Carroll’s “Mad Tea Party.”

As someone who has watched the interplay of these two entities in the 49th state since the days of the late Bob Atwood, the Alaskan publisher and political power behind the now long-gone “The Anchorage Times,” I have never witnessed an acid trip like this.

KTUU.com Tuesday reported that spinmeister Art Hackey — contracted by Alaska Gov. Bill Walker to push the governor’s budget — billed the state $500 for a two-and-a-half hour, Nov. 6 meeting with Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff.

Rogoff, however, denied the meeting was to discuss the budget. She told KTUU reporter Austin Baird that the lengthy sit down was “completely unrelated to the governor’s fiscal plan.”

We were talking about a non-profit organization which is in place to plan for the 150th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska,” Rogoff told Baird. “There may have been some of it to do with our newspaper taking part, somehow publicizing it. That’s where I get kind of fuzzy.”

Welcome to the “Case of the Big Fuzzy.”

By Thursday, the KTUU report was that Walker’s office was investigating whether Hackney might have billed it improperly, while the owner and publisher of the state’s largest newspaper was ducking questions with the defense that “I’m a private citizen. If you don’t mind….”

The wheeling, dealing, high-profile publisher of the Dispatch is badly confused if she believes herself anything other than a public figure, but she is cast in only a supporting role in this story. So, too, for Hackney.

The starring role goes to Walker, and the big question surrounding the star is this: How did Walker fail to recognize the danger in hiring high-profile deal makers Hackney and Jack Ferguson, a Washington, D.C. lobbyist and former aide to the late Sen. Ted Stevens, to do some sort of black-ops budget work for him?

As former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Halcro observed on his Facebook page Wednesday, “Why? It’s hard enough to convince people there is a real problem, but spending $100k on consultants to help inform Alaskans that there is a fiscal crisis does nothing to help inform Alaskans that there is a fiscal crisis.”

And Halcro’s “why?” is just one of the many “whys?” that need to be asked.

Why? Why? Why?

Forget the $100,000 spend. Walker actually got a good deal there. Possibly a great deal. Walker scored two highly experienced players for the cost of a salary and benefits for a mid-level state bureaucrat.

Ignore the $500 Hackney charged for meeting with Rogoff, too. The money isn’t the problem; the approach is the problem.

Walker created a climate of secrecy. He led everyone through the looking glass. His political crony, Rogoff, only added to the intrigue. The gossipers–and there are a lot of them in Alaska–have been whispering for months about why Rogoff spends more time with Ferguson than with her husband, David Rubenstein.

No, I’m not insinuating anything scandalous. Ferguson is a happily married man. His relationship with Rogoff is clearly about business. But what business? That’s a good question. State business, newspaper business or the business of some other Rogoff business? Another good question. Where does the governor fit into this business? Good question.

Walker is a Republican-turned-independent elected after a deal with Democrats in which Rogoff reportedly played some role as broker. That alone has made some people suspicious of what he is up to since the day he was elected. The agreement with Hackney and Ferguson to engage private meetings with state business and political leaders to set the stage for the Walker budget plan only added to the suspicion.

There has been a lot of talk about what they are up to. There have been a lot of views shaped by that talk. There is now a lot of distrust about what Walker is trying to do at a time when Alaskans really need to trust each other more than ever.

The Halcro reaction to the money spent on Rogoff’s “fuzzy” affair — a reaction which seems to reflect a far broader public reaction — isn’t really about the money. It’s about people feeling the government is trying to play them. This is what happens when government operates in secret.

There aren’t any bad people involved in this. At least not that I know of. But they have gone about this in a bad way.

KTUU.com ripped the cover off it. That is what journalism is supposed to do. Journalism is supposed to let the public in on how its business is being conducted. (Oh if only the ADN had done the same after Rogoff held that private dinner with President Obama late last summer.) KTUU and reporter Baird, a former Rogoff employee at the old Alaska Dispatch, are to be commended.

As to what specifically happened in the meeting between Hackney and Rogoff, only they truly know.

Light of day

Hackney said in a Thursday phone interview that he did meet with Rogoff to talk about  organizing some sort of celebration of the 150th anniversary of the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Alaska, but that in part what he wanted to do was get a foot in the door to engage in “trying to figure out her role” in the governor’s budget discussions.

So a discussion about a statewide celebration and the governor’s budget got rolled into one big discussion for which the governor’s office was billed.

Was it right? Was it wrong? Who is to say?

The governor is basically paying Hackney and Ferguson to chitchat business leaders, or “put out fires,” as Hackney described it. So he chitchatted Rogoff on a range of topics. Chitchat is chitchat. Hackney and Rogoff were, as they say in the PR business, “developing a relationship.” There are obvious reasons for them to do this.

Rogoff has been publicly connected  to discussions about the state budget since last fall. Nobody seemed concerned about her involvement then. The Alaska Republican Party has made a bit of a fuss of late, suggesting her association by marriage to the founder of The Carlyle Group might indeed pose a conflict of interest, given Carlyle is involved in helping to manage the permanent fund.

But the bigger problem would seem to center on how much weight is given Rogoff’s advice. Her business track record — “Alaska House” in New York, the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, Alaska Dispatch, and now the Alaska Dispatch News — is not good; all of these entities lost money.  She worried about it when I worked with her.

The Carlyle Group is another matter. It was founded by Rubenstein, Rogoff’s husband. He is a legitimate American success story and now one of the richest men in the country. His company appears to have done a commendable job in helping to manage the state investment fund many now want to tap for state operating revenue. Some might see a conflict of interest in Rogoff offering advice that could have something to do with a fund her husband’s business is paid to help manage. But it’s not like the Rubensteins are tight. She lives in Alaska. He lives on the East Coast. They are only rarely together.

All indications are that she is way, way more interested in what goes on in far-off Alaska than he. Rogoff is legitimately in love with rural parts of the state and with rural Alaskans; of this one core Rogoff belief I am confident. I spent a lot of time talking to her about this over the course of five years or so.

A helping soul

If I had to guess at her role behind the scenes, and one can only guess at what happens there, I’d suspect Rogoff is trying her best to protect the interests of rural Alaska at a time when there is likely to be a fight over almost every dollar the state spends. And rural Alaska needs the help.

Overall, the state spreads a lot more cash in urban areas than rural areas, but on a per capita basis, the spending tilts toward remote locations where schools, health care, aid to families with dependent children, energy assistance and everything else is expensive.

I am confident that in her heart Rogoff believes that the best way to ensure enough money continues flowing toward rural Alaska to keep people alive is to maneuver toward that end behind the scenes. And Walker, who came to power with a promise of transparency, seems to have bought into the idea that government done in secret is the most efficient government.

No can argue against the efficiency of governing in secret, but it is politically dangerous in a democracy. It risks fueling a public revolt that could topple any effort to reshape state government into an economically sustainable entity.

I have no doubt that there have been some “pretty fiery conversations,” as Hackney describes them, in some of the governor’s private meetings between the interests on either side of the tax-and-spending divide. But they have happened in private.

Packaging everything up afterward and announcing a plan leaves the public unaware of what went on in those fiery meetings and worse — far worse — suspicious of what compromises were made. A suspicious electorate is not going to help things.

Alaska is $3.5 billion in the red. It needs a majority of those who believe in the state to honestly and openly work together to solve the state’s big economic problem. Alaskans need to form a solid team. A solid team can only be built around trust. Sadly, the behavior of those who want to do things down in the rabbit warren where no one can see them undermines trust.

 

 

http://www.akrdc.org/assets/docs/goldsmithpathtoafiscalsolution.pdf

 

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