My Turn: How ethical was it to find Blatchford ASMI job?

Posted: Sunday, August 07, 2005

It's time once again for a conversation on the pages of our state newspapers about ethics. On July 27, a reporter from the Anchorage Daily News called me to ask if I had any thoughts on the hiring of Edgar Blatchford at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

I don't know Mr. Blatchford, but I do know ASMI. I started with the agency in 1989 and served as the executive director for my last five years. I retired from ASMI and state government in August of 2002. It turns out that Mr. Blatchford recently decided not to stay at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, but the ethics issue remains relevant.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is an independent state agency like the Alaska Industrial Development & Export Authority . It comes under the Department of Commerce and Economic Development and the employees are exempt state employees. The executive director is hired by the board and reports to the board. Exempt state employees by definition, however, serve at the will of the governor. ASMI has its head office in Juneau, and its marketing office is in Seattle.

ASMI is run by a board of directors from the seafood industry and funded by industry taxes. When I worked there, ASMI had a board of 12 Alaska fishermen, 12 seafood processors (both large and small) and a public member, all appointed by the governor. It was funded entirely by taxes paid by salmon fishermen and processors and by federal grants.

Now, ASMI has a board of two Alaska fishermen, a small Kodiak seafood processor, and four large seafood processors based in Seattle. It is funded by processor taxes and federal grant money. To my knowledge, it still does not get any state funding.

Mr. Blatchford served as the commissioner of the Department of Commerce and Economic Development. After news reports came out about alleged improprieties he was involved with on the job, he submitted his resignation to "avoid embarrassing the governor."

According to the newspapers, he resigned his cabinet position on a Friday. The governor's deputy chief of staff, Mike Nizich, called the current executive director, Ray Riutta, to inquire about a job for Mr. Blatchford, and on the following Monday Edgar Blatchford was ASMI's new marketing specialist for Asia.

When the reporter called me for my opinion, it was the first I had heard of it. I responded that it was blatant political patronage and unacceptable.

The story appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on July 28 with additional quotes from former ASMI Executive Director Sen. Kim Elton, Sen. Hollis French, and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch.

Two days later, I went out of state for five days to a conference. When I came home, I was disappointed that there were no letters to the editor on the subject. I was curious to see how Alaskans felt about it.

During the trip from California, I thought about the impact of this new hire on the ASMI staff. As a former manager, I tried to imagine being a mid-level manager supervising the former commissioner of my own department, knowing his history and that he was there because the governor put him there.

I realized, however, that the broader question had to be why would the governor's staff want to find a state job outside of Alaska for a man who is a tenured professor at the University of Alaska? Why did they do it before the ink was even dry on his resignation papers? Why didn't they just breathe a sigh of relief that he quit before it got any uglier?

Regardless of whether or not Mr. Blatchford decided to keep his new job, the ethics issues linger. Does this seem right to you? Does this action by the Office of the Governor reflect our values as Alaskans? As Independents, or Republicans, or Democrats? Does saying nothing imply approval? Let's have the conversation.

• Barbara Belknap is the former executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

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