State Attorney General Kevin Clarkson resigned Tuesday when reports surfaced of inappropriate contacts with a young woman.
Clarkson, who is a devout Christian, had exchanged emails and messages with the woman. She eventually broke off contacts and said they made her uncomfortable. When she complained privately to a friend, word eventually got out.
Ed Sniffen, Deputy Attorney General who is an experienced state attorney specializes in antitrust and other commercial issues is now acting attorney general. Clarkson’s resignation follows his being placed on administrative leave for a month.
With Clarkson out, the state law department could shift its emphasis away from partisan conservative causes Clarkson supported to a greater focud on traditional legal matters and litigation.
Clarkson was criticized by legislators and reportedly within the law departement for diverting scarce resources from traditional law to conservative causes.
On the resignation Tuesday, Dunlevy said in a statement: “Kevin Clarkson has admitted to conduct in the workplace that did not live up to our high expectations, and this is deeply disappointing.”
“This morning (Tuesday) he took responsibility for the unintentional consequences of his actions and and tendered his resignation to me, which I have accepted.
“This administration has and always will expect the highest level of professional conduct in the workplace. There is nothing more important than the protection of our state employees, and that includes feeling safe when an employee is at work,” Dunleavy said.
In his letter of resignation Clarkson said the contacts, consisting of a series of text messages, occurred over a month and were innocent, dealing with food, movies and books.
Scandal and resignations have affected other administrations. Craig Richards, former Gov. Bill Walker’s attorney general, resigned over an inappropriate relationship, as did the late former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot, who was running with Walker for reelection at the time.
Mallot’s resignation and withdrawal from his campaign for reelection damaged Walker’s bid for a second term as governor. The two were running as a team.
Clarkson was the architect of many of Dunleavy’s social and labor policy initiatives. In the past, in private practice, he represented Christian religious groups and was involved in efforts to promote right to life and anti-abortion laws and to secure state funding for religious schools.
Clarkson’s departure from the administration signals one more exit of a group of conservative officials and advisors who came into office with Dunleavy in 2018. Several of these, including former Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock, deputy chief of staff Jeremy Price and budget director Donna Arduin, and now Clarkson, have left the administration.
They are being replaced with experienced advisors who, while conservative, are giving the governor more pragmatic advice.
Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anch., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and is an attorney, said he is uncomfortable with the state’s top legal officer pursuing overtly political issues in an advocacy role, although he recognizes this is common even in Alaska, where state attorneys have aggressively pursued litigation with the federal government over state sovereignty on lands and natural resources.
However, on these questions there is also wide support in the Legislature and with the public.
On initiatives on social or labor policy Clarkson and Dunleavy have pursued that wide support is lacking.
“I’m particularly concerned to see the attorney general in such an advocacy role,” particularly in expending resources on cases that have lost rounds in the courts and have little chance of success.
“One of the principal responsibilities of an attorney is to advise a client on the realistic chances of success,” in continuing a case so the client can decide whether it is worth the money, he said.
One issue Clarkson championed and that attracted heavy criticism was an effort to overturn decades of public employee bargaining policy with what critics called a radical interpretation of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Janus case. This decision gave public employees the right to opt out of paying at least a portion of union dues if they chose. They were still to remain members, however, and obligated to pay enough dues to cover costs of direct representation in collective bargaining.
As Attorney General, Clarkson chose to interpret the decision that public employees could opt completely out of unions by not signing an annual renewal of membership. No other state has applied this interpretation of Janus.
The Alaska State Employees Association, which represents a large number of public employees, filed a lawsuit, arguing that this interpretation would leave one group of public employees, those who paid dues, covering the cost of bargaining for wages, benefits and working conditions that benefitted all workers including those opting out of union membership.
The employees that opted to remain in unions and pay dues, would get a “free ride.”
The ASEA prevailed at the state superior court level but the case is still active in the courts.
This effort began when national conservative political groups were looking to recruit Republican-led states to press this interpretation of the Janus decision and in places like Alaska where losses at the lower court level could reach the now-conservative U.S. Supreme Court fairly quickly.
With Dunleavy’s election in 2018 and Clarkson’s appointment as attorney general Alaska seemed to offer such a possibility.
Most legal scholars give Clarkson’s interpretation of Janus litle chance of success, and the attorney general has been questioned over his decision to spend state funds in a time of severe budget constraints to pursue a case with little potential.
This came into sharp focus last spring when the Legislature refused to approve a budget allocation for an expensive Washington, D.C. law firm that specializes in conservative causes to pursue the Alaska case. The state administration tapped other funds in the Department of Law budget hire the firm anyway.