Deven Mitchell, seen during his Monday interview with the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board of trustees, was named the corporation's new CEO late Monday. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. board of trustees has named Deven Mitchell, the interim head of the Alaska Department of Revenue, as the corporation’s new CEO.
The board voted unanimously on Monday evening to approve the pick and direct interim CEO Valerie Mertz to open salary negotiations with Mitchell.
The decision came at the end of a special meeting that included hours of closed-door debate and a day of public interviews with three finalists.
Mitchell said on Tuesday that the move was a major accomplishment and that at 54 years old, he hopes to work for at least five years in the role.
Board chairman Ethan Schutt said Mitchell’s 30 years of state service, including time as head of the Alaska Municipal Bond Bank Authority and as the state’s debt manager, were important to the selection, as was his reputation for honesty in front of the Alaska Legislature.
“He’s got a long history representing the state in important and sometimes innovative financial matters. So that reputation and his reputation across the state and with the Legislature and across various administrations was very important to us,” Schutt said.
The board’s pick of Mitchell ended a 10-month replacement process required when the board fired former CEO Angela Rodell in December after a series of conflicts caused board members to lose confidence in Rodell.
Rodell claimed her firing was “political retribution” by the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, but a special investigation ordered by the Alaska Legislature found last month that the governor did not order her dismissal.
“My bottom line is he is an excellent, excellent choice,” said Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage and chair of the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, which has oversight of the Permanent Fund corporation.
Former Anchorage Republican state legislator Jennifer Johnston was among those who criticized Rodell’s firing and the length of time that the corporation went without a CEO.
On Tuesday, she said the selection of Cordova-born and Juneau-raised Mitchell is a good move.
“He’s lived in the state all of his life, and he understands Alaska and understands the long-term purpose of the fund, and he’s got a financial background. That’s what’s needed,” she said.
Mitchell has worked under multiple gubernatorial administrations, including Republican, Democratic and independent officials.
“I don’t feel like it’s a political appointment, and I think that’s very important,” Johnston said.
Mitchell called the praise “humbling.”
“It’s what I would have hoped for as far as people describing my conduct to others,” he said.
Mitchell’s start date and their salary are subject to negotiations with the corporation, but he is likely to be one of the state’s highest-paid employees when finished.
Rodell earned $386,513 in salary in 2021, not counting additional expenses. In a special meeting earlier this year, preliminary findings indicated Permanent Fund employees are underpaid when compared to similar positions in the Lower 48. An in-depth salary study was commissioned earlier this year.
The $72 billion Permanent Fund Corp. is Alaska’s most closely watched state-owned corporation because of its importance to the state economy. An annual transfer from the Permanent Fund to the state treasury represents between half and two-thirds of the state’s general purpose revenue, depending on the price of oil.
That transfer pays for government services and jobs that employ thousands of Alaskans, and it funds the annual Permanent Fund dividend.
Investments managed by Permanent Fund Corp. must return sufficient revenue to compensate for the annual transfer. If not, the amount of money available for dividends and services will decline over the long term, causing service cuts or tax increases.
Members of the board of trustees have previously said they believe the corporation’s CEO should primarily focus on managing staff, and investment decisions should be left to the corporation’s CIO, Marcus Frampton.
Mitchell lacks significant investment experience, and Schutt said that wasn’t an attribute the board was looking for.
He said the board wanted someone who could hire and build an investment team, and that Mitchell’s knowledge of state government and his relationship with the Legislature are positive attributes.
“It was very, very nice to have that package,” Schutt said.
To replace Rodell, the corporation’s board hired an executive search firm, People AK, on a $76,000 contract earlier this year, and that firm received between “120 and 130” applications, staff for the company said Monday.
Between “80 and 90 hit technical competency” based on a review of resumes and qualifications, and phone interviews narrowed the applicant pool to 10.
Those names were forwarded to a hiring committee that included APFC board members and staff, which narrowed the number of applicants to a final three, who were interviewed Monday.
In addition to Mitchell, the final options included Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority Chief Investment Officer Morgan Neff, and Melanie Hardin, a Verizon executive who formerly worked for Charles Schwab in London.
Mitchell said he submitted his application in early August, a month before he was named interim commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue. Responding to a trustee’s question, he said he sent in his application, went sheep hunting, and didn’t inform departing Commissioner Lucinda Mahoney until late August.
By statute, the revenue commissioner occupies a seat on the Permanent Fund Corp. board, and Mitchell recused himself from CEO discussions and most meeting activities.
“There was no backroom engineering and there was no communication from the governor’s office,” Schutt said.
Mitchell has 30 years of experience in a variety of roles at the Department of Revenue and pointed out that the department and the APFC frequently trade staff, even at the CEO level. Rodell, the prior CEO, was state treasurer and state revenue commissioner before being hired in 2015. One key difference: Rodell was out of that role when she was hired; Mitchell will move from one job to the other.
Mitchell said the bond bank’s board president encouraged him to apply for the job, as did Larry Persily, a former Department of Revenue official, itinerant journalist and energy expert who now works as a special policy adviser for Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska.
Persily and Mitchell met in passing at an airport. Persily said he told Mitchell that if the board was looking for an investment expert, he probably wasn’t the right fit, but if they were looking for someone to manage people and appear in front of the Alaska Legislature, he had the right experience.
That experience includes the state’s ill-fated attempt to borrow as much as $1 billion in order to pay cashable tax credits owed to oil and gas drillers. A Juneau man sued to block the plan, calling it unconstitutional, and the Alaska Supreme Court agreed, siding with the underdog in the billion-dollar dispute.
Mitchell said his takeaway lesson was “that you should operate within your lane” and “not push the envelope too far.”
By law, the Permanent Fund is required to pursue financial gain, but in recent years, the fund has been asked by members of the public and prominent politicians to pursue other goals.
State legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy asked the fund this year to sell Russian assets in order to punish that nation for its invasion of Ukraine. It declined to do so.
Environmentalists have asked the fund to sell holdings in fossil-fuel companies. Dunleavy and others have suggested the fund should sell holdings in banks that refuse to finance fossil-fuel projects in the Arctic. Neither action has taken place.
Collectively, these ideas are known as environmental, social and governance investing, or ESG.
“It’s a failed strategy, in my view,” Mitchell said of ESG.
He noted that CALPERS, the California public pension fund that is the largest in the United States, has lost billions of dollars and failed to appreciably change companies’ environmental policies through pro-environmental ESG policies.
Mitchell said that overall, his approach to the Permanent Fund is akin to the one the Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses when managing fisheries.
“We want to manage it for maximum yield, maximum harvest, and while you’re here, you’re going to enjoy it, whether it’s a Permanent Fund dividend or better state services,” he said.
Schutt said that in the coming months, the board won’t be looking at investment returns as a measure of Mitchell’s success or failure. Instead, the board will look at the new CEO’s interactions with the board and with staff.
In particular, Mitchell will have to address a significant number of vacant positions at the corporation and seek to fill those roles with new hires or rehires.
“I think that’s going to be one of the primary operational issues for the organization,” Mitchell said, adding that he wants to convey that the Permanent Fund Corp. is a “great place to work” for new hires.
The corporation is also in the middle of its budgeting process for the next fiscal year.
“I think the board and the staff, to a person, are really excited to have someone coming in now and moving toward a positive and optimistic future for the APFC. We really, really are excited to kind of turn the page and focus on the positive,” Schutt said.
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