Findings released regarding governor’s bid to fire head of state oil and gas watchdog agency

Hollis French, center, testifies at a Feb. 8, 2019 hearing regarding whether he should be fired from his post at AOGCC for cause.

Hollis French, center, testifies at a Feb. 8, 2019 hearing regarding whether he should be fired from his post at AOGCC for cause. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The state Department of Law has released a findings of fact” report on whether Gov. Michael Dunleavy has grounds to remove the head of a state oil and gas watchdog agency.

The report supports some, but not all, of the governor’s charges against the chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Hollis French.

French said he believes the report exonerates him from what he calls “the most serious charges.”

The report was prepared by Tim Petumenos, a private attorney who, at Dunleavy’s request, presided over a hearing last week regarding whether French should remain in his position. By law, AOGCC commissioners can only be fired for cause.

Petumenos found “substantial evidence” that French was chronically absent from the office, that he failed to perform routine work that then had to be taken on by others at the agency “and that this affected morale at the office,” he wrote in the report.

Petumenos also wrote that he “finds that the absences did not affect or delay the work of the Commission in any material way.”

The governor also claimed French shared the location of confidential oil well data with a reporter. Petumenos found that, indeed, had happened.

In a previous interview with Alaska Public Media, French’s attorney, Kevin Fitzgerald, questioned whether the incident constituted a security breach, since the data itself wasn’t made public.

Also in the report, Petumenos wrote he did not find sufficient evidence to show that French engaged in “browbeating fellow commissioners,” or that he undermined the mission of the agency.

In discussing those charges, the report refers to a matter when “French fervently and ardently believed that a position he had taken in connection with an adjudicatory matter, with respect to the scope of jurisdiction of the AOGCC, was correct though it was in the minority.”

According to French, that “adjudicatory matter” was related to a lengthy disagreement over the extent of the state agency’s power, and whether it has jurisdiction over incidents like a 2017 gas leak in Cook Inlet from a pipeline operated by Texas-based oil company Hilcorp. French believes the agency should have jurisdiction; the other two AOGCC commissioners disagree.

Petumenos wrote he “believes it would set a dangerous precedent to consider removing a Commissioner … for ardently pursuing a matter though the Commissioner be in the minority.”

French responded to the findings in an interview Thursday.

“I think the hearing officer cleared me on the most serious charges, and when at the very end he found that there was some issue about my not getting routine office work done,” French said. “That’s what he found. We submitted plenty of evidence that I had, but that’s what he found.”

The governor’s office is not yet ready to make a decision, according to a statement from press secretary Matt Shuckerow.

“Governor Dunleavy has reviewed the findings of fact and is awaiting the receipt of the public hearing transcript,” Shuckerow said. “Upon reviewing that information, the Governor will make his final determination.”

As of Wednesday, French has been placed on administrative leave with pay.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that French was charged with sharing “confidential oil well data locations.” The charge was instead that French shared the location of where confidential oil well data was kept.

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