The Palin Family's Potential Big Oil Conflict of Interest
by Senate Guru, Sat Aug 30, 2008 at 10:27:07 PM EDT
In Sarah Palin's introductory speech, she made a passing reference to her husband's background:
And then we have as -- after my husband, who is a lifelong commercial fisherman, lifetime Alaskan -- he's a production operator. Todd is a production operator in the oil fields up on Alaska's North Slope, and he's a proud member of the United Steelworkers Union, and he's a world champion snow machine racer.
While it's interesting that Mr. Palin, often referred to by Sarah Palin as the "First Dude," races snow machines, it's that production operator gig that I'm most interested in.
Mr. Palin spent the better part of the last two decades working for British Petroleum, an entity that is significantly impacted by the work of Mr. Palin's wife, the nearly 21-month Governor of Alaska. Mr. Palin was a production supervisor with BP, which became involved with negotiations over the natural gas pipeline with Governor Palin.
Shortly after Mrs. Palin's election, Mr. Palin took a leave of absence from BP specifically to avoid a conflict of interest between his job at BP and his personal life as the Governor's husband. But that desire to avoid a conflict of interest didn't last long:
A decision by Alaska's first family is raising concerns about a possible conflict of interest involving Gov. Sarah Palin and the oil industry.
The governor's husband, Todd Palin, is back on BP's payroll. Gov. Palin says his return will not influence her decisions involving the oil industry, but one former lawmaker who wrote an ethics guideline for the administration believes it's a bad move at the wrong time. ...
The governor has called a special session of the Legislature to possibly rewrite the Petroleum Profits Tax. Her proposals could have a multi-million dollar impact on her husband's employer. BP could also become a major player in the natural gas line project.
But the Palins argued that, because the role Mr. Palin returned to wasn't directly in management, there wasn't a conflict of interest, despite the major financial decisions being negotiated between Mr. Palin's company and Mrs. Palin's administration:
"A conflict could be perceived if my spouse's position was in a management position with an oil company. But, because it's a blue-collar, in-the-field type job, working in a facility as a production operator, separating the oil, the gas and water; it's not a management position where decision are being made for the future of investment with this oil company in Alaska. So, it hasn't been perceived, on our part anyway, as a conflict of interest," Gov. Palin said.
Still, the very existence of the perception of impropriety and a conflict of interest is what unsettles those seeking to hold a self-described reformer like Mrs. Palin to a higher standard:
[Democratic] Former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz co-authored the "Ethics White Paper" with [Republican] former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea at the request of the governor shortly after she took office. He doesn't agree with Mr. Palin's decision to go back to work.
"It's bad timing. It's a tough situation for the family, but I think the interests of the state have to come first," Berkowitz said. "In the interest of the state, you need to make sure you're above the appearance of impropriety."
He said Todd Palin's employment with a major North Slope producer could raise questions and problems.
"The short version is, I think this adds an unnecessary, complicating variable to a very complex situation. Going through a revision of the oil and gas tax is going to be difficult enough as it is and you want as few distractions as possible. This will amount to a distraction," Berkowitz said.
Further, there is a very big question mark as to what role Mr. Palin has really played with BP since returning to work, as KTUU's Capitol bureau chief Bill McAllister reports:
There's an interesting mix of comments from Republicans on this. One legislator called me today to say that Todd actually was involved in the legislative process last year, and referred me to two colleagues. But in talking with those two legislators, there was no indication of the sort. Each reported one instance in which the First Dude was present at a meeting, but in one case so were the couple's children, and in the other, he reportedly didn't say anything. Sharon Leighow, the governor's deputy press secretary, says Todd played absolutely no role in any legislative business last session.
So we already have a conflict. Mrs. Palin argued that Mr. Palin's job did not represent a conflict of interest because the job Mr. Palin returned to was an "in-the-field type job." Yet Republican state legislators confirm that Mr. Palin attended legislative meetings (ostensibly held in an office and not "in the field"), though Mr. Palin reportedly "didn't say anything." I'm sure that the Governor's spouse, also a two-decade BP employee, sitting quietly in the corner didn't draw any attention.
Now, was there a conflict of interest? I hope not. And I don't immediately think so. But was there the perception of a conflict of interest - the perception of impropriety? Absolutely. Mr. Palin left his employ at BP to avoid a conflict, and then returned, and reportedly sat in on legislative meetings between BP and state legislators.
Given that McCain-Palin's slogan is "Country First: Reform-Prosperity-Peace," I think that Mrs. Palin needs to hold her family's professional transparency to a higher standard.
The Palins should immediately release a list of every meeting that Mr. Palin attended after returning to work that was also attended by officials in the Alaskan Government, as well as the agendas of those meetings. Confirm for the voters that Mr. Palin's role with BP while BP conducted negotiations with Mrs. Palin's administration really did not represent a conflict of interest. Further, Mr. Palin ought to release a job description of his role when he took the leave of absence specifically to avoid a conflict of interest, as well as a job description of the role he returned to, so we could better understand how they differed and why it all of a sudden did not represent a conflict of interest.
Even Mr. Palin's rationale for returning to work doesn't immediately pass the smell test:
Todd Palin said the family needs the extra income.
"I mean, we're still fairly young and we've got kids going into college. Some governors and their spouses, I'm sure, are independently wealthy, but we're not one of those couples. So we have to watch out for our kids' future," Mr. Palin said.
Why does that not immediately pass the smell test?
In case you were wondering, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin owns three homes -- one is her family's main residence and the other two are for recreation, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Further, the Governor of Alaska pulls down a six-figure salary. Now, I admit that I don't know the average Alaskan family's cost of living. And, while a family with a six-figure salary, one main residence, and two "recreational" residences might just be considered poor by John McCain's count, I don't imagine that the Palins were too terribly hard up for cash. At the very least, selling one of their two purely "recreational" residences would have been a more appropriate option to Mr. Palin taking a job with the potential for such a conflict of interest. Perhaps Mr. Palin could have sought employ with a company that didn't do such high profile business with the state of Alaska and the Palin Administration. Or Mr. Palin could have tried to expand that "commercial fisherman" business that Mrs. Palin repeatedly references. That is, of course, as long as the Palins put Alaska first the same way that McCain-Palin claims to want to put "Country First."
I look forward to the Palins disclosing the information about Mr. Palin's quiet sit-ins on legislative business between BP and the Alaskan state government, that is, if the Palins care to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard.