Anchorage

Anchorage health department director resigns amid investigation into fabricated resume

Gerace

Anchorage health director Joe Gerace resigned Monday, hours after Alaska Public Media confronted him and Mayor Dave Bronson’s office with evidence that Gerace had vastly overstated and misrepresented both his educational credentials and military background.

A city press release attributed Gerace’s resignation to “severe health issues” including a stroke last week that left him hospitalized. He “suffered another event” on Monday, according to the release.

A joint investigation with American Public Media found that Gerace had falsely presented himself as a high-ranking officer in the Alaska National Guard with a pair of master’s degrees in business administration and physician assistant studies. Those credentials led Bronson to appoint Gerace director of the city’s Health Department last year, putting him in charge of the response to a global pandemic and a local homelessness crisis.

Gerace doesn’t have a master’s degree, let alone two, records show. And he isn’t a member of the National Guard, either. His lofty title of lieutenant colonel comes from his position in the Alaska State Defense Force, a group of volunteers that sometimes assists the Guard, but is not part of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Reached by phone Monday morning, Gerace admitted that he was not in the Guard. He refused to share information about where he got one of his master’s degrees. And he claimed he got the other one from a school that didn’t offer master’s degrees at the time and has no record of him as a student. At times, he insisted his resume was factual, and at other times acknowledged that statements in it were inaccurate.

“I could see how they’d be misleading for some people,” he said. “If somebody asks me, I clarify them right away.”

Gerace’s first year as health director has been marked by a COVID-19 surge that overwhelmed the city’s two largest hospitals, a rash of staff resignations and a homelessness policy that critics say has led to a “humanitarian crisis.”

Running the Health Department is a challenging job even for a qualified manager. It has more than 100 employees and a $15 million budget. In addition to COVID and homelessness, the department oversees such varied areas as food assistance, air quality monitoring, restaurant inspection and animal control.

The mayor and other city leaders knew that one of Gerace’s former employees had raised questions about the accuracy of his resume before the Anchorage Assembly confirmed Gerace as health director. The former employee emailed her concerns to the Assembly. And she testified in a closed-door Assembly meeting that the mayor attended.

Despite her warnings in November, neither Bronson nor the Assembly stopped to verify Gerace’s credentials. Immediately following the hearing, the Assembly confirmed Gerace’s appointment to a job that pays nearly $120,000 a year and is responsible for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Bronson did not respond to a list of questions about Gerace’s credentials earlier in the day Monday. In a brief phone conversation, Bronson spokesperson Corey Allen Young disputed some of the information presented about Gerace’s credentials. He said the city would not be able to provide answers by Monday afternoon because of Gerace’s medical emergency. He declined to be recorded.

Military service

Gerace presents himself as a military man — both on his resume and in his personal life. Former employees at a COVID vaccination site he managed say he encouraged staff to address him as “Colonel Joe.”

Gerace’s actual military experience is limited, and some of the claims he has made are misleading or false.

Gerace hasn’t served in any part of the Army since the 1990s, according to Defense Department databases. He enlisted in the Washington National Guard in 1991 and then transferred to the Army Reserves. When he left the service in 1999, records show, his rank was just one step above private.

But in the Alaska State Defense Force, Gerace started as a lieutenant colonel. The ASDF is a volunteer-based organization that is largely made up of former military servicemen and women like Gerace. It has fewer than 200 members, compared to the roughly 3,800 soldiers and airmen in the Alaska National Guard.

Unlike the National Guard, ASDF members are not part of the U.S. military, and they aren’t even employees of the state. Until recently, ASDF members were required to supply their own uniforms, which say “Alaska,” instead of “Army.” Under state law, the ASDF is considered part of Alaska’s “organized militia” along with the Guard and the Alaska Naval Militia. It uses ranks that mirror the military’s, but its regulations restrict members from using them outside of official communications.

Records show Gerace not only uses his ASDF lieutenant colonel rank liberally, he has also stoked the misperception that he holds that position in the Alaska National Guard.

In July 2021, Gerace falsely told the Bronson administration that he was a “Lieutenant Colonel - Alaska Guard.” He made the claim in an email obtained by Alaska Public Media that he sent to Bronson’s community engagement director. Two months later, Bronson nominated him for health director.

At an Assembly hearing in October, Bronson’s human resources director, Niki Tshibaka, repeated the falsehood, introducing Gerace as “a lieutenant colonel in the Alaska National Guard.” That echoed a press release from Bronson’s office describing Gerace as a commander for the Guard. Gerace said nothing during that hearing to correct the record.

“Wow, quite the introduction to follow,” Gerace said after Tshibaka spoke.

Gerace said in a Monday phone interview that he did correct the record to Tshibaka later, in private.

“He is not a member of the Alaska National Guard,” its communications director Alan Brown said in an email Monday evening. “If [a] current member of the (Alaska Organized Militia) were found to have falsely represented their service, it could result in adverse action.”

Former servicemen and women who join the Alaska State Defense Force typically start at the same rank they had in the military. It is unclear how Gerace rocketed from E-4 specialist, an enlisted rank, to lieutenant colonel, a high-ranking officer.

Simon Brown II, commander of the Alaska State Defense Force, said Monday he was calling a special staff meeting to review and verify the documents Gerace submitted with his application, which would have included his military discharge paperwork and copies of his degrees. Brown submitted a letter recommending Gerace for the Health Department job, and Brown seemed troubled by the suggestion that Gerace had misrepresented himself.

“I’m hoping your information is wrong,” Brown said.

Alaska Public Media obtained a different resume that Gerace used in 2021 to get a job as vaccine operations director for Visit Healthcare in Anchorage. Visit Healthcare ran several COVID testing and vaccination sites around the city.

The resume Gerace gave to Visit Healthcare includes a dubious depiction of his military accomplishments. It says “I had 24 years of service,” triple the amount of time the Army’s database shows. Gerace also claimed on the resume that he had “5 combat deployments.”

military

None of those deployments appear in the Army’s databases, and Gerace admitted during an interview that the claim on the resume was false.

“I cannot explain that,” he said. “I never served in a combat zone.”

But he went on to explain that he had been deployed “through a lot of different agencies” like the Red Cross in “austere conditions, very, very bad conditions, disasters and other stuff.”

As for the 24 years of service, he said that referred to “mixed service” -- including his time in the Alaska State Defense Force -- not just his work in the military. The Alaska National Guard said he joined the ASDF in 2020. Combined with his time in the Washington National Guard and the Army Reserve, that would bring him to 11 years, not 24.

Education

Public records also contradict the educational achievements Gerace touted on the resume he submitted to the Anchorage Assembly last year.

The resume says Gerace got a master’s in physician assistant studies in 1993 and a second one in business administration in 1998, on top of a bachelor’s of science in chemistry and chemical engineering in 1988.

But his resume does not list the higher education institutions that supposedly granted him these degrees.

Gerace education

In a phone interview, Gerace refused to say where he got his master’s in physician assistant studies, promising to send documentation later. But he claimed he received his MBA from Henry Cogswell College, a small school in Everett, Washington, that went out of business 16 years ago.

Henry Cogswell College was not authorized to offer MBAs, according to records from the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state body that oversees higher education. David Smith, a business professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University who taught at Henry Cogswell College in 1998, when Gerace claims to have graduated, confirmed that.

“No MBAs during my time,” Smith wrote in an email. He also had no memory of a student named Joe Gerace.

The Washington Student Achievement Council took custody of Henry Cogswell College’s student transcripts when the school closed in 2006. It has no record of Gerace attending the school either.

Confronted with these facts during an interview, Gerace was unable to explain how he could have gotten an MBA from a school that didn’t offer them or why the records showed no indication he was ever a student.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’d have to ask them because there was some when the school closed, there was some heavy confusion about how to even get our stuff.”

On Monday, Gerace also acknowledged that he did not have two bachelor’s degrees, as he claimed on the resume he provided to the Assembly. He said he had only one – a major in chemistry. He said he minored in chemical engineering.

Public records from Washington State, where Gerace lived for much of his adult life, also contradict the educational background he claimed on the resume. Records contain at least four instances in which he listed his educational credentials. None mention graduate degrees.

The records include a handwritten application to modify child support payments that Gerace filled out in 2000, because he was more than $10,000 behind on payments to his first wife. The document, which he submitted to a court under penalty of perjury, says that the highest level of education he completed was a bachelor’s of science.

Gerace

In other filings in the same case, he said he had a “bachelor’s degree” and that his highest level of education was “college.” That was two years after Gerace now says he earned his second master’s degree.

And 11 years later, when he ran unsuccessfully for a city council seat in a suburb of Tacoma, Washington, Gerace wrote in his official candidate bio that he had a B.S. in business administration and a B.A. in history. No chemistry. No chemical engineering. No physician assistant studies. No mention of master’s degrees.

Gerace

Gerace said he left out his master’s degrees because he thought voters would judge him for having a lot of education.

“People don’t want to hire an old guy that knows everything,” he said of the bio.

The resume Gerace used to get his earlier job at Visit Healthcare makes no mention of bachelor’s degrees, let alone master’s. Under education, the resume lists only a “paramedic certificate” from Northern Virginia Community College, also known as NOVA. The college confirmed that Gerace enrolled there in 1984, when he was 16, and left three years later. The college’s files show no evidence of Gerace receiving a paramedic certificate.

“We have no record of a degree conferred,” NOVA’s Freedom of Information Act Officer Kathy Thompson wrote in an email.

Gerace

Thompson said Gerace reapplied to the community college just two years ago, a few months before he got the job at Visit Healthcare. He sought to study emergency medical services and general studies with a focus on health science, Thompson said, but he didn’t end up enrolling.

It would seem unusual for someone with a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees to pursue an associate’s degree from a community college.

Gerace claimed he reapplied to the college simply to access his transcripts and never had any intention of enrolling.

The Alaska National Guard seemed under the impression that Gerace had attended the University of Virginia. It wrote a Facebook post about him in 2020 as part of a series called “faces of the Alaska State Defense Force” that said he “studied medicine” there. A profile of Gerace on the professional networking site RocketReach also claims he went there, in addition to NOVA and Henry Cogswell College.

The University of Virginia has no record of Gerace studying there, deputy spokesman Bethanie Glover wrote in an email.

Alan Brown, the Alaska National Guard spokesman, said he was unable to determine why the Guard had posted that Gerace had studied medicine there.

“Normally, this type of information would come from a personal interview,” he wrote.

Gerace said he “corrected that too,” though as of Monday, the post still appeared on the Guard’s Facebook page.

Gerace joins embattled Bronson administration

Mayor Dave Bronson is a conservative who narrowly defeated his progressive opponent by opposing COVID-19 health restrictions and vowing to address homelessness. His 13 months in office have been embroiled in controversy.

The mayor ordered workers at the city’s water treatment plant to stop adding fluoride to the water system, and then his administration misled the public about it. He spoke at a gathering of COVID-19 vaccine skeptics during one of the city’s deadliest waves of the virus. And he fired an official investigating alleged offensive comments made by his deputy library director.

Several of his appointees faced tough confirmation battles because of questions about their qualifications. More than a third of the directors of city departments and divisions have resigned or been fired under Bronson, an analysis by Alaska Public Media found. Three have filed lawsuits against the administration saying they were wrongfully terminated.

Bronson’s first choice for health director was a Republican insider with a background in health care finance. David Morgan came under fire for offensive Facebook comments and after he refused to acknowledge to an Alaska’s News Source reporter that a pandemic was happening. Morgan resigned after it became clear that the Assembly wouldn’t confirm him.

That’s when Bronson turned to Gerace. He was already on the administration’s radar because of his role at Visit Healthcare.

A few days after Bronson took office, Gerace sent an email to Portia Noble, the mayor’s community engagement director. The email referred to a previous phone conversation with Noble and included an extensive list of his qualifications.

In the July 12 email, Gerace claimed to be an officer in the Alaska Guard with two master’s degrees. He also said he’d been a physician’s assistant since 1992.

If the mayor’s office had searched freely available online licensing databases for physician assistants in the three states Gerace has called home — Virginia, Washington and Alaska — it would have found no record of him holding such a license.

Gerace said that his email was referring to the physician assistant’s degree he claims to have received in 1993. He said that his statement in the email that he was a physician assistant “might be unintentional.”

Emily Ostereicher, a spokesperson for Visit Healthcare, said the company believed that Gerace was a PA when it hired him.

A month after Morgan stepped aside, Bronson appointed Gerace.

During Gerace’s confirmation process, Assembly members said they received about 10 emails and several phone calls from people who had interacted with Gerace at Visit Healthcare, Suburban Propane, where he managed customer service, the American Red Cross, where he volunteered, and even at the city health department during his brief time as unconfirmed acting director. The allegations included unprofessional management and favoritism, as well as concerns about his qualifications.

Emma Jacobson, a nurse who Gerace had fired from Visit Healthcare, told the Assembly that his resume didn’t add up.

“I am concerned with Mr. Gerace’s varying accounting of his own certifications,” she wrote in a November 8 email to Assembly members. “He has represented himself at times as a Physician’s Assistant or as a Paramedic; he has given accounts of his time as both in the military to many different people on many different occasions. I could not find evidence to support this in national databases.”

Tshibaka, Bronson’s human resources director, dismissed the complaints at the time as “false,” “inaccurate” and “pure character assassination.” He apologized to Gerace at an Assembly meeting for what he called the “disparagement of your sterling character.”

Jacobson was undeterred. She said she repeated her concerns during a closed-door Assembly meeting attended by Mayor Bronson. Jen Wallace, another former employee of Gerace’s who was present at the closed-door meeting, corroborated Jacobson’s account. The minutes from the portion of the meeting that was open to the public also show the mayor was present.

Jacobson said nobody seemed interested in following up on her concerns.

The Assembly confirmed Gerace in a 7-3 vote that same day.

“I was heartbroken, and I was tearful,” Jacobson said. “I was so afraid for the city.”

Gerace’s tenure as health director

In Gerace’s 10 months as health director, he led the department through a COVID-19 surge and a major transition in its response to homelessness. His tenure was rocky and contentious.

Within a few months of Gerace’s confirmation, nearly all senior staff remaining from the previous administration resigned or were fired, costing the department decades of experience.

Last fall, two of Anchorage’s largest hospitals declared crisis standards — a protocol for rationing health care — during a surge of COVID cases.

At the time, a department employee complained to Assembly members about links on the Anchorage Health Department website that suggested the antiparasitic drug ivermectin could help treat COVID-19, something major health organizations say is unproven.

More recently, the health department has come under fire for what advocates for the homeless say was a botched closure of the city’s main shelter at Sullivan Arena.

Sullivan Arena, homeless shelter

Gerace closed the shelter months before a new large-scale shelter space was scheduled to open. In the month leading up to the closure, his department told the shelter not to accept new guests. Homeless service providers say that left many people with nowhere to live except tent camps in city parks.

Police data show that move coincided with a sharp increase in the number of “outdoor deaths” in the city — which typically refers to homeless residents. Six people died outdoors in June, the highest one-month total in at least two and a half years and about four times the monthly average during that period. There were three additional deaths in July, also more than normal.

Gerace said Monday morning that he had already decided to leave the administration but at the time, he didn’t specify a date.

“Due to a recent medical emergency,” he said, “I’m unable to perform the duties of health director. So I have submitted my resignation.”

He said he was proud of his time at the department and his career.

“There’s never been a day in 40 years that I haven’t cared for people,” he said. “I truly care for people. And I don’t think anyone said that I’ve done anything bad with the city.”

Gerace’s real resume

The resume Gerace used to get the health director job is long on volunteer experience and short on actual employment. The only paid, full-time job it lists is the position at Visit Healthcare, which he held for just seven months in 2021.

Still, Gerace touted his business experience.

“I have made lots of money in business,” Gerace said in the phone interview. “That’s what I prefer to do.”

Gerace’s actual work history, compiled through public records, includes stints as a police officer, a firefighter and the sales manager for a construction supply company. He worked at a Chevy dealership, drove a tow truck and delivered building materials for Lowe’s. At one point, two years after he supposedly earned an MBA, he told a court he was working odd jobs for the owner of a mobile home in exchange for room and board. It was part of his explanation for failing to make child support payments.

Gerace

Gerace’s own forays into running businesses have been troubled and short-lived.

He opened a gun store in Renton, Washington, in 2000 but filed for bankruptcy personally and on behalf of the store just two years later. He filed again the following year but never completed the bankruptcy process.

In 2016, Gerace entered into an agreement to purchase a company that ran a Chevron gas station in Anchorage. Two years later, the man who had sold it to him filed a lawsuit claiming Gerace hadn’t made the agreed-upon payments. The case was settled out of court.

The state environmental agency cited the Chevron station under Gerace’s management for not keeping records on its monitoring for leaks and not properly maintaining leak response equipment.

Gerace seemed to have “intentionally made a false representation regarding required leak detection records to the inspector, which is, in fact, willfully making a false statement to the state,” Cheryl Paige, who oversees the regulation of the state’s underground fuel storage tanks, wrote in a 2018 email obtained through a public records request.

Gerace no longer operates the Chevron station. He disputed the claim that he had falsified records, saying his bad record keeping happened because he wasn’t properly trained by a former business partner.

He also briefly leased a Shell station in Spenard for about a year, he said.

Gerace’s company was sued in small claims court for about $5,000 in unpaid bills by a contractor that installed a security system there.

Still, Gerace appears to be planning new ventures in the business world. Last year, he registered 10 new business names with the state including Alaska Medical Response, The EMT Academy, W.W.A.M.I. Fire & EMS Training, 5 Star Towing & Service, Big Joe’s and GI Joe’s. In April, he incorporated Whittier Rescue Squad, a nonprofit organization created to provide ambulance service, according to its filing with the state. Its other directors are Gerace’s wife and his executive assistant. Whittier City Manager Jim Hunt said he only recently heard of the Whittier Rescue Squad and said it has no association with the city’s emergency response services.

The resume Gerace submitted to the Anchorage Assembly touts his work as a firefighter and paramedic, “at various agencies over many years.” Gerace is not licensed as a paramedic in Alaska, only an advanced EMT, which is a lower-skilled designation. He volunteered for just a few months — not years — at the Seward Volunteer Ambulance Department and Whittier Volunteer Fire Department, officials there say.

Like almost every state, Alaska requires paramedics to be certified by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. Gerace is not listed in the registry as a paramedic.

In 2020, however, he procured a paramedic license in Montana, one of only three states that does not require NREMT certification.

Gerace said he applied for and received that license using his certifications as an EMT. It was later rescinded, he said, after an official realized the credentials he submitted did not qualify him to become a paramedic.

“I did nothing nefarious,” he said. “Someone down there reviewed it and said yes initially and then someone changed their mind.”

Washington State has no record of Gerace holding a paramedic license, either. He had an EMT license there in the early 1990s, but it expired in 1993.

Gerace has been divorced three times. His second wife accused him of forging documents he filed in court as part of their divorce.

“During our marriage I found that Mr. Gerace was quite willing to do anything and say anything to achieve his ends,” RaeLea Olson-Gerace wrote in a court filing. “This included deliberate falsehoods and the post-dating and pre-dating of documents when it served his interests.”

Olson-Gerace, who has since remarried and is now RaeLea Hurt, declined to comment for this story.

Jennifer Lu contributed to this story. It was produced as a collaboration between American Public Media Reports and Alaska Public Media and is republished here with permission.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the year Henry Cogswell College closed. It closed in 2006, not 1996.

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