Somewhere the truth exists about a now much-discussed meeting between Alice Rogoff, the owner of Alaska’s largest news organization, and Art Hackney, a consultant hired by Gov. Bill Walker to push the governor’s budget plan.
But it’s hard to tell what that truth might be.
Hackney and Rogoff agree they met in early November of last year to talk about something, but there the stories diverge depending on which media tells the tale. KTUU has Rogoff and Hackney discussing Walker fiscal plans and a possible celebration of the 150th anniversary of the U.S. purchase of Alaska. ADN, the news organization Rogoff runs, agrees on the anniversary discussion but denies the budget talks.
Here is the KTUU version published online Thursday:
“….Rogoff said: ‘I’m sure there were other words exchanged, because that always goes on when people meet … I’m sure the subject of the fiscal plan came up in passing.'”
ADN.com, published this version online the next day:
“Rogoff, in a phone interview Friday, acknowledged that the meeting occurred but had no recollection of discussing Walker’s budget plan. She said her discussion with Hackney was about another project he’s working on: planning a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Alaska’s purchase. Rogoff couldn’t recall the duration of the meeting, ‘because I was not wearing a stopwatch,’ but she said she thought it was less than an hour.”
Someone is not telling the truth here. Either Rogoff is “sure” that the fiscal plan came up, as she allegedly told KTUU, or she “had no recollection” as she allegedly ADN reporter Nat Herz, who she has designated as her official spokesperson if the KTUU story is to believed.
KTUU said that when Rogoff was questioned on her involvement in the governor’s budget plan, she responded with this statement:
“I’m just not going to do it. I’m a private citizen. If you don’t mind, we’ll just leave that subject for me to talk about with Nat Herz someday.”
A day after that comment, Herz wrote a story claiming that Hackney may “have charged the state for meetings that never occurred.” It would be a violation of the law for a state contractor to change the government for work that wasn’t performed.
Usually if there is the possibility illegal acts have taken place, the state opens an investigation and stops talking publicly until the investigation is complete. In this case, both the KTUU and ADN story are vague as to whether an actual investigation is underway.
On Thursday, KTUU reported only that “the state is reviewing bills.” On Friday, ADN went a big-step farther, saying Hackney “appeared” to have charged the state for “phantom meetings.”
ADN also published Hackney’s invoices submitted to the state. The ADN story did not say how those invoices were obtained. If the state is investigating Hackney for “phantom meetings” and illegal billings, such invoices would normally be withheld.
The state has a long record of withholding information in cases like this.
As The Center for Public Integrity, a 2014 Pulitzer Price winner, noted four years ago, “state government officials routinely refuse to release public records for vague reasons.”
Alaska was given a D+ for its record on open government at the time. Little has changed since then. Walker, who entered office promising transparency, late summer began meeting with large groups of business and political leaders in what he called “roundtable discussions” on the state’s fiscal crisis. The meetings were conducted in secret. The media was locked out.
When a member of the media questioned why, the governor’s office explained the meetings were not subject to the state Opening Meetings Law. Asked why then Rogoff, the owner and publisher of the state’s largest news organization, was allowed to attend, the governor’s office told Casey Reynolds of “The Midnight Sun,” an online news startup, that “publishers didn’t count in the media ban.”
Walker and Rogoff have a long personal relationship. She is reported to have helped broker a deal that brought Walker, a one-time Republican, and Alaska Democratic gubernatorial candidate Byron Mallott together on what was called the “Alaska First Unity Ticket” to defeat incumbent Repubican Sean Parnell.
The governor’s office has explained Rogoff is involved in the fiscal discussions because she is a businesswoman and her business advice is wanted. Rogoff’s business is reported to have lost $6 million last year. The state of Alaska is now running about $3.5 billion in the red. If it can cut it’s losses to a mere $6 million a year, it will be in great shape.