The Anchorage headquarters of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, shares space with a sister agency, the Alaska Energy Authority. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz)

Alaska development authority signs contracts with ex-Dunleavy aides, paying up to $295/hour

  • By Nathaniel Herz, Northern Journal, Alaska Beacon
  • Wednesday, March 20, 2024 8:36am
  • NewsState government

Alaska’s state-owned economic development agency has retained four consultants aimed at boosting its standing in the rural regions where it’s proposed controversial projects — and the hires include two Alaska Native political figures who previously worked in Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office.

Rex Rock Jr., who left the governor’s office in 2022, and John Moller, who resigned as a policy advisor to Dunleavy in 2021, were hired by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA, in November, through a publicly advertised request for proposals.

The one-year deal with Rock’s consulting firm pays $175 an hour and is expected to total $168,000, plus travel expenses, before it expires at the end of October, according to a copy of the contract obtained through a public records request. The contract with Moller’s business calls for him to be paid $283 an hour and no more than $204,000 over its one-year term.

Both contracts can be extended for up to three additional years.

The contracts, which say they’re for “community liaison and workforce development,” could provoke added scrutiny of AIDEA. The agency is already facing intense community opposition to some of the development projects it’s pushing.

Those include oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a mining access road that would cross a national park in Northwest Alaska and another access road to mineral deposits and other natural resources in the Susitna River watershed, west of Anchorage.

Dunleavy’s administration and supporters of Alaska’s oil, gas and mining industries want the projects to move forward. But subsistence, conservation and recreation advocates have mounted aggressive opposition campaigns to each one and have sharply criticized continued state spending on them.

AIDEA’s executive director, Randy Ruaro, said the agency’s contracts with Rock, Moller and a business owned by another Alaska Native consultant, Joy Huntington, are aimed at negotiating the issues that arise when development projects are planned for rural areas, including “subsistence, impacts to cultural sites, jobs, economic development, how to afford high costs of living, and even health.”

“These types of discussions often benefit from being facilitated by other Alaskans with experience in the Alaska Native culture and local expertise,” Ruaro wrote in a prepared statement. “Proactive outreach shows respect to Tribes, communities and residents while making sure they receive and understand facts about a project, not scare tactics from non-governmental organizations or other opponents, who disappear once they stop a project, never to be heard or seen again, but leaving behind nothing for the residents.”

Huntington’s deal with AIDEA is capped at $250,000 and $295 an hour, and it references at least two other employees at her firm, Uqaqti Consulting, who could bill under the contract.

AIDEA’s fourth workforce development and community liaison contract, with MAP Consulting, is capped at $250,000 for the year and $120 an hour, with as many as eight different employees, including owner Mary Ann Pease, doing the work.

Rock and Moller join several other former employees of Dunleavy’s executive office now working for AIDEA. They include Ruaro, who was the governor’s chief of staff until 2022; Brandon Brefczynski, AIDEA’s deputy director, who was previously Dunleavy’s deputy chief of staff; and Dave Stieren, Dunleavy’s former communications director, who was hired by AIDEA last year.

Rock, who’s from the North Slope village of Point Hope, was Dunleavy’s rural policy advisor before he left the job in late 2022; his father, Rex Rock Sr., is chief executive of Alaska’s largest private company, Arctic Slope Regional Corp.

Rock is working with AIDEA on its efforts to advance oil development in the Arctic Refuge, Ruaro said, as well as on Alaska’s North Slope generally. Rock is also working on the Ambler Access Project, a proposed 200-mile road that would connect mining deposits in Northwest Alaska to the rest of the state’s road system.

In an email, Rock said his upbringing in Point Hope was close enough to Northwest Alaska that he has “family ties and friendships that stretch to other communities.”

“The love for maktak and sisuaq” — types of bowhead and beluga whale meat — “helps bridge a lot of gaps when I visit my cousins in the Northwest region,” Rock wrote. “In my humble opinion, I can be a good facilitator of the communications between developers and rural Alaskan communities. I am glad AIDEA recognized the need for working with the corporations, Tribes (and) communities and look forward to advancing discussions.”

Moller, who co-chaired Dunleavy’s first gubernatorial campaign, abruptly resigned his job as Dunleavy’s rural affairs advisor in May 2021 — a development that prompted questions from stakeholders he worked with in the Alaska Native community and the fishing industry.

State officials would not explain Moller’s departure at the time. But a news website, the Alaska Landmine, later published emails it obtained through a public records request that showed Moller resigned just before a scheduled meeting with the state’s personnel director and with Ruaro, who was then Dunleavy’s chief of staff.

In an email to Northern Journal, Moller said he left Dunleavy’s office for “personal reasons,” and did not immediately respond to a follow-up message requesting more details. Ruaro, on Friday, said Moller’s departure from the governor’s office was a “personnel issue” that he could not discuss.

Moller was also nominated by Dunleavy last week as one of two preferred candidates for a seat on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal commission that manages Alaska’s lucrative federal fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. The final choice is made by the Biden administration.

In his email, Moller said he is helping AIDEA with its communications “in our Indigenous community.”

“I believe AIDEA and all Alaskans benefit from my service,” Moller said.

Ruaro said he doesn’t think Moller has billed AIDEA for any work yet. But Ruaro said he expects Moller will help the agency on “non-Arctic projects” like the road in the Susitna River watershed.

AIDEA officials would not immediately release the contractors’ billing records, along with their successful proposals and progress reports required by their contracts. The agency said it would release them in response to a public records request, which is pending.

• Nathaniel Herz welcomes tips at natherz@gmail.com or (907) 793-0312. This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter from Herz. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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