Alaska Permanent Fund leaders vote to hire law firm to investigate leaker and themselves

The trustees of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. are seen during a quarterly meeting on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

BY: JAMES BROOKS, Alaska Beacon

A third-party investigator will examine six years’ worth of contacts between staff and the board of trustees. The board in charge of Alaska’s $80 billion trust fund has voted to hire a third-party law firm to investigate who leaked internal emails that indicated board member Gabrielle Rubenstein may have engaged in self-dealing.

The law firm, whose hiring was approved in a unanimous 6-0 vote on Thursday, will also review six years’ worth of interactions between Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. staff and members of the corporation’s board of trustees to determine the scope of problems within the corporation. 

The leaked internal emails, first published in April by the Alaska Landmine, indicate Rubenstein set up meetings between staff and her own business associates. In one message, Chief Investment Officer Marcus Frampton says, “I would put it out there that a reasonable person looking at the facts here might question whether she has some conflicts that are clouding the independence of her positions here.”

In an editorial written after the publication of those emails, the Anchorage Daily News said the fund should “divest” itself of Rubenstein, daughter of billionaire David Rubenstein.

Rubenstein, in prepared statements, has said she follows the fund’s ethics rules.

Jeff Landfield, owner of the Alaska Landmine and author of the article that publicized the emails, said he thinks the Permanent Fund’s approach misses the mark.

“I think they should be looking at the content of the allegations more than looking for the source of the leak,” Landfield said on Friday, after the vote.

“They’ve talked very little about her conflicts of interest and what several of the staff said, and it’s more about reacting instead of reflecting,” he said.

The Alaska Legislature, which has oversight authority, has not taken significant action. Rep. Cliff Groh, D-Anchorage, has requested a hearing of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee on the topic.

Speaking before Thursday’s vote, Trustee Adam Crum, also commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue, said the Permanent Fund board has “to find a way to grow back into a high-trust environment. And right now, we’re not quite there.”

Trustee Craig Richards said hiring outside counsel to perform an investigation is the right thing to do as a fiduciary.

“As a matter of public perception, if we’re not viewed as being proactive on both the leak and some of the concerns raised in the materials that leaked, we’re going to be in a worse situation in terms of the process,” he said.

Speaking Friday, Crum said it’s important for trustees to understand how the emails were leaked because staff handle billions of dollars’ worth of financial transactions.

“We have a lot of confidential information on dealflow that can’t be leaked,” he said.

Board chair Ethan Schutt said the law firm — which one has not yet been decided — will take an “independent look at both the substance of the internal emails as well as how they possibly got out of the corporation.”

Trustee Jason Brune, formerly commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and now sitting in a public seat on the board, suggested that the firm examine six years’ worth of contacts because he recalled being warned about interactions between staff and board members when he became a trustee.

“There was significant concern about threats and contact and non-communication between staff and trustees at that point. As well, obviously, this is a continuing issue,” Brune said.

Brune said after the meeting that he believes issues predated the arrival of Rubenstein or himself and that a “holistic review” will ensure that trustees address both current issues and past ones so the board’s governance committee can address them.

Since Landfield’s article, the board of trustees has been reviewing its governance — rules that block trustees and protect staff.

“This is not something we have ignored. We’ve had conversations on this, been trying to address this and are trying to find the best way in order to do this,” Crum said.