Consultant ousted after lawmakers say she aided governor's critic

State Department of Administration says it recovered information from erased computers

Posted: Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Disciplinary action over a memo that was critical of the Murkowski administration's gas pipeline negotiations didn't end with last fall's purge at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

On Friday, the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee suspended Bonnie Robson, oil and gas issues consultant, saying she assisted then-Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin in writing a memo that raised questions about the nature of the negotiations. The Alaska Department of Administration said information recovered from two erased computers shows she was connected to the memo.

Irwin was forced from his job over the memo, and others followed him.

Department of Natural Resources staffers said they talked with Robson on several issues, but they did not believe she co-authored the memo, as Department of Administration Commissioner Scott Nordstrand is implying. Efforts to reach Robson for comment were unsuccessful.

Nordstrand said his department is putting together records for the public concerning the pipeline negotiations. When staff members learned Mark Myers, former director of the Division of Oil and Gas, had erased memory on his two laptop computers, efforts were made to recover the lost data.

According to Alaska law, state employees must preserve public records including electronic documents, and they may not be removed, destroyed or disposed of except as provided by law.

In the process of recovering the data, state officials found an e-mail containing a document they believe was a rough draft written by Robson. The memo sought advice from the state attorney general on the legality of the negotiations.

The Legislative Budget and Audit Committee chairman, Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said Robson was not suspended because of the content of the memo, but because she overstepped her responsibilities in advising department leaders. She was hired to work for the Legislature, he said.

In late October, Irwin was dismissed after the memo was made public and Gov. Frank Murkowski said he did not want anyone who doubts the legality of the negotiations and the pipeline project in his cabinet.

Myers resigned along with several other department leaders, including Deputy Commissioner Marty Rutherford. Myers was not available for comment at press time.

A statement released by Nordstrand on Monday said Rutherford requested to have the hard drive on her computer erased.

"DNR technical staff refused to do so, stating in writing that 'wiping computers when people leave DNR employment is not DNR policy,'" Nordstrand said. Her hard drive was not erased.

Rutherford said she only asked if the department would erase data stored on the desktop, which contained e-mails from a former husband that she did not want others to read.

"They tried to make it look like something was wrong," said Rutherford, adding she had no intentions to erase any material related to work.

Irwin said Monday it is "foolish" that the administration is presenting information that can be interpreted as accusations of wrongdoing. He said he believes his former staff members were not trying to delete any relevant information prior to their departure.

Calling Robson a loyal consultant to the state, he said a "witch hunt" is going on to find those working for the government who raise questions about the gas pipeline negotiations.

"It appears our position is very solid," and the administration is resorting to discrediting the former employees, Irwin said.

Nordstrand said he does not think Myers will be penalized for erasing the hard drives. If Myers was still an employee of the state, then disciplinary action would be considered, he said.

Also on Monday, the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee spent about $2.6 million hiring and renewing contracts for oil and gas industry consultants. The Legislature uses the advisers to conduct an independent review of the negotiations and a possible contract with three major North Slope oil producers.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.



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