Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board elects new chair ahead of report on former CEO's ouster

Sep. 28—Permanent Fund Corp.

The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board of trustees has elected a new chair ahead of their meeting next week to choose a new CEO for the corporation. But before that happens, a legislative committee on Wednesday is set to release a final report on the abrupt removal of the corporation's former CEO, Angela Rodell, late last year.

Ethan Schutt, an attorney and executive vice president of Bristol Bay Native Corp., was elected chair unopposed during the board's annual meeting Thursday in Anchorage. Schutt replaced former chair Craig Richards, who served in that position for the past year. Richards will stay on the board, having been reappointed to a four-year term in 2021.

The board of trustees directs investment policy at the corporation, selects its CEO and helps set its overall strategic vision. The Permanent Fund has provided two-thirds of state revenue since the Legislature passed a law in 2018 that laid out a rules-based system for sustainable annual draws from the fund.

Rodell, who served as the corporation's CEO from 2015 until 2021 and led it to years of strong returns, had repeatedly advocated that legislators follow that approach. She has said that her firing was "political retribution" for opposing a budget plan proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, which would have overdrawn the fund, partly to pay for a larger Permanent Fund dividend.

All five of the six trustees who voted for her removal were appointed by Dunleavy. The governor has denied playing any part in Rodell's ouster.

A joint House and Senate legislative committee approved a $100,000 contract in January for a law firm to conduct an investigation into her firing; it is set to meet Wednesday to release a final report. Anchorage Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof, chair of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, said the plan is to discuss the report publicly, but there may need to be a closed-door portion of the meeting "in the event the information presented falls under protected personnel information."

Richards has denied that the board's decision to remove Rodell was politically motivated. Instead, he cited years of personnel conflicts in personnel reviews, some of which predated Dunleavy's term in office. Richards appeared before a legislative hearing in January to explain the reasons for Rodell's firing, but he declined to give more information.

Schutt, who has served as a trustee since 2020 and voted to fire Rodell, said he isn't expecting "anything particularly new" to come out of Wednesday's legislative hearing. He said that the board of trustees' decision to replace Richards was not connected to the release of the report into Rodell's ouster, "Because that would imply that we think negatively of former chair Richards, and we do not."

Richards gave no explanation during last week's board meeting why he was not seeking another one-year term as chair. He did not respond to requests for comment from the Daily News.

Schutt pointed to all the "extra work" that Richards had done over the past year to coordinate with the Legislature during its investigation into Rodell's ouster. Richards, who has served on the board uninterrupted since 2017 and previously in 2015 and 2016, alluded to that as well after Schutt was elected, and said he hoped the new chair "would have it a little easier than I did."

"It has been a brutally tough year and I have never spent as much time as I have this year working on Permanent Fund stuff," Richards said Thursday. "And a lot of it has not been time that was productively spent."

Rodell declined to comment Monday. She previously threatened legal action against the board over her ouster.

The board is set to choose a new CEO of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. from among three finalists during a special meeting Monday in Juneau. The corporation has been led by acting CEO Valerie Mertz, who had been chief financial officer since 2012.

The corporation issued a contract capped at $76,000 to People AK, formerly Alaska Executive Search, to do the recruitment work to find a replacement CEO. The process has taken 10 months because of the state's procurement process, and to ensure the board is choosing from an "excellent" pool of candidates, Schutt said.

The finalists have not been named yet, but they will be once a notice for Monday's meeting is published. Newly appointed trustee Deven Mitchell, acting commissioner of the Department of Revenue, said during last week's board meeting that he would need to recuse himself from the final CEO selection process because he had applied for the position himself.

The appointment of a new CEO comes just over a month after the Permanent Fund reported negative returns for the first time in a decade, largely due to a downturn in the stock market. The fund dropped in value from $82 billion to $78 billion over the last fiscal year. Trustees applauded the Permanent Fund's investment managers during last week's meeting, noting that the fund has outperformed its peers.