The Anchorage Assembly is beginning an inquiry into the hiring of a Health Department director who fabricated credentials and work history on his resume, and it is looking into whether it can independently vet top executives appointed by the mayor.
“First, what happened? How were the misrepresented credentials of this individual brought forward to the Assembly? Assembly leadership intends to engage in fact-finding,” chair Suzanne LaFrance said at a committee meeting Thursday.
Its inquiry comes on the heels of Mayor Dave Bronson’s Tuesday announcement that his administration is investigating the city’s hiring practices.
Anchorage Health Department director Joe Gerace resigned Monday. The mayor’s office announced his departure just hours ahead of the publication of a public media investigation that found Gerace falsely claimed to have two master’s degrees and misrepresented himself as a high-ranking officer in the Alaska National Guard, among other distortions and falsehoods.
Assembly leadership and most Assembly members are distrustful of the administration’s investigation, saying it is inappropriate for the administration and Human Resources Department to investigate its own failure to verify the credentials of Bronson’s appointee.
Even Assembly members allied with Bronson are asking what can be done to fix the issues that allowed the mayor to place Gerace in a position of power.
“What are our options to do other vetting, whether we have to or whether the administration has to temporarily hire an outside firm to take over the screening, until we know what the problem is? Or do we just continue to use the same failed system until we figure out what’s wrong?” member Kevin Cross said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Assembly leadership has asked for a legal opinion on the extent of its powers and duty during the confirmation process for executive appointments, such as whether it can independently verify credentials of the mayor’s nominees, LaFrance said. Many questions surround the city code governing executive appointments, she said.
The Assembly had voted to confirm Gerace as director in November, on a 7-3 vote.
Also, the Assembly will prioritize an investigation into the impacts of Gerace’s tenure at the Health Department, she said.
“The Health Department is particularly important for issues of public safety. We have seen the loss of employees. We know that HUD funds were not applied for,” LaFrance said, referring to a botched funding process for a homeless housing project. ”We had a Health Department director who was comfortable submitting fraudulent documents to the municipality. What documents did he sign? What disciplinary actions did he conduct? What grants were administered? What contracts did he execute?”
How, exactly, the Assembly will proceed is likely to depend what legal options the Assembly’s lawyers identify.
But the Assembly’s leadership plans to task the Audit Committee with work to determine the extent of possible impacts to the municipality, and will likely work with the municipal auditor to review Gerace’s actions and work as department head, Assembly leadership said.
Municipal manager Amy Demboski on Tuesday told members that the administration’s review has already identified gaps in longstanding, traditional hiring practices. The city will now require documentation such as proof of degrees, certifications and employment history, she said.
The mayor’s office has not responded to questions from the Daily News about who in the administration conducted Gerace’s hiring process, interviews and any reference checks. It has not responded to a question about who in its human resources department is conducting the investigation into hiring practices, or whether the findings will be public. It did not respond to a request for a job description or qualification requirements for the Health Department director position or any documentation of the policies and processes behind the selection of high-level executive appointees.
Assembly member Felix Rivera said that he is “not at all convinced by the defense” the administration has given to the public so far about how Gerace ended up with the job.
Members of the public made multiple accusations against Gerace last year as the Assembly was considering his appointment. The claims 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.
”I want to know if HR did anything to investigate those claims, or if they, just on face value, dubbed those as a witch hunt or character assassination,” Rivera said. He was one of three members who voted against confirming Gerace.
Rivera said he also wants to speak with former city Human Resources directors about hiring practices and how they treated top-level executive appointments.
However, the Assembly’s inquiry is complicated by the laws outlining the city government’s function and balance of power.
Anchorage has a strong-mayor form of government, and the mayor has fairly broad powers to make executive appointments. Those high-level positions serve at the pleasure of the mayor.
The Assembly acts as a check on that power, voting whether or not to confirm a mayor’s appointee to a position. Before voting, the Assembly reviews public comments and testimony on mayoral appointments, and often holds confirmation hearings to ask questions of the appointees.
But the Assembly largely depends on the information presented by the city’s Human Resources Department, a part of the mayor’s administration, to make decisions. Under the current process, it is the administration’s responsibility to perform due diligence, background checks and reference checks.
According to a section of city code, they are not subject to the normal procedures of recruitment and selection for other city jobs:
“The mayor or responsible official of the appointing authority may utilize any recruitment and referral sources and techniques that is deemed appropriate to obtain the highest caliber employees for these positions and may appoint whomever is determined to best discharge the duties of an executive position at the discretion of the mayor or responsible official of the appointing authority subject to the merit provisions of the Charter and this Code. Prior to an executive employee being hired, the individual shall have submitted a municipal employment application form including a resume describing relevant education, training and experience,” the code states.
At Thursday’s Rules Committee meeting, Assembly member Forrest Dunbar said he wants to know whether the municipal auditor can also dig into the question of “how this happened.”
“If not, do we have to hire outside counsel or some other kind of third-party investigator to do this?” Dunbar said. “I think that there was a failure in the HR departments here. And to have the HR department investigate itself doesn’t feel very effective to me. I don’t think that will hold water for much of the public. So I’m looking for another way to do that.”
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said leadership is discussing whether the Assembly can hire a third party to help scrutinize any forthcoming executive appointments.
Assembly member Cross, who took office after Gerace was hired, put some responsibility on the Assembly for Gerace’s hiring and asked whether it could establish a higher standard than requiring just the basic resume from the administration.
“Are we checking who else should we be talking to about this candidate? And because it seems to me like with some simple questions and investigation, we could have found out quite a bit about this particular circumstance,” Cross said. “What does the reference check process look like? Because it seems like ... that failed miserably.”
LaFrance said a lawyer for the Assembly is looking into whether it could do things typically performed by HR, such as a background check. Dunbar noted that the Assembly does not have the resources or staff that a human resources department has, and receives and reviews a deluge of executive appointments after a new mayor takes office.
Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia called for all of Bronson’s appointments to be reviewed again and said he believes an independent investigation must be done to uncover what happened and what processes were used — or not used.
”I think where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he said. “... This is a clear indication that there’s a breakdown in the system and that we may very well have others who are working for us that are absolutely not qualified to be in the position they’re in. And so I really want us to take this very seriously.”