Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration is launching an investigation into the city’s hiring practices, officials said Tuesday -- a day after the head of the Anchorage Health Department resigned in advance of the publication of an investigation showing he’d made up credentials and work history.
Bronson on Tuesday said he directed members of the administration and city officials to investigate the vetting process and the city’s hiring practices.
“Upon learning the shocking news yesterday about Joe Gerace, I immediately tasked the municipal manager’s office and human resources department to investigate the hiring of former health director Joe Gerace,” Bronson said during remarks at Tuesday’s Assembly meeting.
Citing severe health issues, Gerace stepped down Monday afternoon, a few hours before the investigation was released. The report, published Monday by Alaska Public Media and the investigative wing of Minnesota-based American Public Media, found that Gerace falsely claimed to have a pair of master’s degrees in business administration and physician assistant studies. It also found he had falsely represented himself as a high-ranking officer in the Alaska National Guard, among other distortions and falsehoods.
“Ultimately Joe lied,” said Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office. “We’re obviously disappointed and shocked that he lied about his degrees.”
Gerace’s credentials were presented to the Assembly during his confirmation hearing by the city’s human resources department director, Niki Tshibaka. On Tuesday morning, the municipal manager’s office and human resources department began a review of the department’s traditional hiring processes, Municipal Manager Amy Demboski told Assembly members. That includes its practices and the software used to perform background checks.
The city is also implementing stricter credential verification policies, such as requiring copies of documents that show proof of degrees, certifications and employment history, she said.
“It is our intent to make sure that every candidate is fully vetted to the best of our ability,” Demboski said. “We think we have seen gaps in the municipal process that have been longstanding, that we have already implemented a process to rectify.”
The investigation will include reviewing and verifying the credentials of all general municipal employees who have been hired since Bronson took office on July 1, 2021, she said.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said the Assembly will conduct a separate review and investigation.
“Despite promises that we would have the right hand investigating the right hand -- the HR director investigating how the HR department failed to meet the Assembly’s need to have true and accurate information -- the Assembly will be working, as well, on a process,” Constant said.
Constant said it is becoming clear the Assembly needs to carefully scrutinize information provided regarding mayoral appointees, “particularly information provided by the human resources department.”
The Assembly has a responsibility to rebuild public trust and to uncover “how this happened,” Constant said.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar questioned whether the administration would allow a neutral party like an outside organization or the municipal auditor to conduct the city’s investigation.
“I have heard some concern from members of the public about having the municipal manager and the HR director lead the investigation regarding Joe Gerace given the roles they played in hiring him and bringing him on board,” Dunbar said.
The mayor said his administration is not doing that.
“The answer is no. This is an HR issue. This is a municipality issue and we will take care of it. I would like to remind the public that the hiring process used to hire Mr. Gerace was a longstanding practice used for decades,” Bronson said.
The administration announced it tapped Gerace to head Anchorage’s health department last September, as the state was grappling with a surge in severe COVID-19 cases that was pushing the local hospital system to its breaking point. In supporting his nomination, Bronson held up Gerace’s work at Visit Healthcare, a company that was providing testing and vaccination services within the municipality. The administration also cited Gerace’s numerous degrees and National Guard experience, qualifications that the investigative report revealed Monday to be exaggerated or false.
Ahead of the Anchorage Assembly’s vote confirming Gerace as director in November, multiple accusations against Gerace surfaced. They came largely from former colleagues and employees he had supervised at previous workplaces. The accusations related to his behavior in the workplace and included allegations of sexism toward female employees, along with concerns about qualifications and safety. The Bronson administration at the time called the accusations false and an attempt at character assassination.
Several Assembly members who voted to confirm Gerace said that despite the grievances they’d heard, they believed Gerace was qualified for the position, based on the information presented by the human resources director and by Gerace. The three members who voted against his confirmation pointed to the unusually high number of accusations and serious nature of the claims.
Gerace’s selection came during a contentious time early in the new Bronson administration’s staffing process. Confirmation votes before the Assembly are typically pro forma affairs. But Assembly members pushed back on several of the nominees for high-level positions in city government, pointing to a lack of required credentials or past offensive statements. Bronson’s initial appointee to direct the health department resigned just ahead of the Assembly’s confirmation vote, after intense scrutiny from Assembly members over his qualifications and comments about the pandemic.
Twice, the administration put forward its picks to head the library system. One was not confirmed and the second, Judy Eledge, pulled her name from consideration, though she remains the deputy director.
Last week, the Bronson administration announced that its nominee to take over as library director more than three months earlier had decided not to take the position, which remains vacant.