Alaska Gov. Dunleavy’s administration says it’s ensuring ‘ethical transition’ of chief of staff to ConocoPhillips job

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Chief of Staff Ben Stevens talks to Senate Majority Leader Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, after Dunleavy's State of the State address on Monday, January 27, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Chief of Staff Ben Stevens talks to Senate Majority Leader Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, after Dunleavy’s State of the State address on Jan. 27, 2020 in Juneau. Stevens served as Dunleavy’s chief of staff until recently, when he took an executive job at ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest oil producer. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The oil company that hired Alaska GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s chief of staff for an executive job is pledging to uphold state ethics laws that bar him from working on issues that were under consideration in the governor’s office — and Dunleavy’s administration also says it’s working to ensure an “ethical transition.”

Ben Stevens’ last day in the governor’s office was Friday, Feb. 26, and he started work as vice president of external affairs and transportation at ConocoPhillips the following Monday.

The company is Alaska’s largest oil producer and holds an array of state oil leases.

The Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act bars public officials from working on matters under consideration by their agency for two years after leaving their state job. It also bars high-ranking officials from lobbying for a year after leaving the government.

After Stevens’ hiring by ConocoPhillips was announced last month, some of the Dunleavy administration’s critics questioned whether his new job would meet those standards. They also noted his longstanding ties to the oil industry — including during the VECO scandal more than a decade ago, when he was a state senator accused of taking bribes by two former oil industry executives.

Stevens didn’t respond to a request for comment. But a ConocoPhillips spokeswoman, Natalie Lowman, said the company is mindful of the ethics restrictions.

“We are fully aware of state prohibitions against lobbying and advocating on issues that Mr. Stevens may have worked on as the governor’s chief of staff,” Lowman wrote in an email. “We will, of course, comply with all applicable laws, and Mr. Stevens will not be working on or involved in any matter that might present a conflict of interest.”

A spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law, Maria Bahr, also wrote in an email that Stevens is “fully aware of his responsibilities under the ethics act” and has been working with her agency “to ensure an ethical transition to his new role.”

For his part, Dunleavy said he’s not concerned about Stevens’ move — nor about critics’ allegations that he’s trading in his public service for a private sector job.

“I don’t believe that’s going to be the case any more than if he left and worked for a union or if he left and worked for a hospital association,” Dunleavy said in an interview Friday.

Stevens’ predecessor at ConocoPhillips, Scott Jepsen, was not a registered lobbyist with the state, and Bahr said that Stevens would not be working as a lobbyist for the company.

But Jepsen’s job description did include working on government affairs for the company, and he’s been a vocal player in legislative and public debates around whether to raise oil taxes.

When Stevens’ hiring by ConocoPhillips was announced last month, the Alaska Public Interest Research Group questioned whether the state had issued a waiver under the ethics act that would allow Stevens to work on issues that had been under consideration by the governor’s office. Such a waiver is only allowed under the ethics act if it’s determined to be “not adverse to the public interest.”

But Lowman, from ConocoPhillips, said that there’s no need for such a waiver, as “we are not going to have Mr. Stevens work on any matters that were under consideration in the governor’s office while he was there.”

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