Anchorage

Anchorage Mayor Bronson’s deputy chief of staff departs City Hall as accusations fly

City Hall

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s deputy chief of staff, Brice Wilbanks, resigned this week amid the controversies that have engulfed city government since the former municipal manager accused Bronson and his administration of misconduct.

But after he resigned, lawyers representing Wilbanks said he was rescinding the resignation and accused the city’s ombudsman, Darrel Hess, of acting inappropriately.

On Friday, Bronson’s office said Wilbanks “is no longer employed” with the city. The mayor’s office also wouldn’t answer questions about the resignation or Wilbanks’ attempt to walk it back.

The back-and-forth over the status of one of the mayor’s top aides was the latest turn as Bronson faces scrutiny from the city Assembly and others over alleged illegal and unethical acts.

[ADN Politics podcast: The story behind the Demboski letter]

The Anchorage ombudsman, Hess, on Thursday referred to city prosecutors the allegations by city staff that the mayor’s office or one of the mayor’s executives may have interfered with his investigation into the alleged misconduct.

“We write to give you notice that there has been inappropriate action by Municipal employees and agents, including the Ombudsman, and it appears that Mr. Wilbanks has been denied due process and that there has been a violation of his right to necessary confidentiality,” Wilbanks’ attorneys, Phillip Weidner and Lisa Rosano, wrote in a letter on Thursday obtained by the Daily News

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The letter demanded Wilbanks be placed on paid administrative leave “effective immediately.”

Questions and uncertainty have surrounded City Hall following the explosive accusations levied last week by former city manager Amy Demboski, and the status of Wilbanks only added to the uncertainty.

By Friday, it was unclear if the state would be investigating the ombudsman’s alert that a Bronson executive might have spied on whistleblowers or attempted to intimidate employees. Wilbanks accused the ombudsman of outing him as the target of that complaint — even though the ombudsman did not name the executive.

Mayoral candidate Dave Bronson

Hess said his memo took care to keep the identity of the accused executive anonymous, using no names, gender-neutral words and no mention of the executive’s title or department. It also does not use certain terms, instead using the phrase “there may have been” misconduct, illegal activity or a breach of duty, he said.

“I’m just floored, quite frankly. I read the letter and just scratched my head,” Hess said of the letter from Wilbanks’ attorneys.

Hess had sent the public memo on Thursday to the mayor and Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, saying multiple city employees told him that the mayor’s office had been accessing City Hall surveillance footage to see who was talking to the ombudsman and Assembly members.

[Anchorage Assembly passes emergency orders in wake of City Hall allegations]

Hess wrote that “an executive with the municipality had stated that the mayor’s office has been downloading copies of City Hall surveillance videos” and said he had referred the matter to the Municipal Prosecutor’s Office.

Hess did not name the executive, nor did he say to whom the executive had disclosed that video had been downloaded. The city IT director said that his department does not have the capability to download archived videos from the cameras, and that any request to review the footage would have to be made to front desk security officers. On Thursday, one of the officers declined to say whether anyone from the mayor’s office had made such a request.

Wilbanks did not respond to interview requests. One of his attorneys, Weidner, declined to comment.

In the letter, Wilbanks’ attorneys asserted that the ombudsman’s investigation “appears to be tainted by outside pressures and neither the investigation nor the referral well-founded.”

Anchorage Assembly, emergency measures

They further asserted that Wilbanks was not given due process and that Wilbanks is now “being subjected to unjustified public scrutiny” as a result of the ombudsman’s investigation and referral and the publication of the memo.

[Anchorage Mayor Bronson’s office accused of using City Hall surveillance video to track staff speaking to ombudsman, Assembly members]

Wilbanks’ letter was emailed to Bronson; Bronson’s chief of staff, Adam Trombley; Hess; and Acting Municipal Attorney Blair Christensen by a legal assistant for Weidner’s law firm.

Wilbanks managed Bronson’s campaign for mayor in 2021. Bronson appointed Wilbanks to the deputy chief of staff position when he took office.

In public remarks, the mayor described the young executive as a key part of his team.

“We’ve got a 21-year-old staffer who is virtually a genius, and I’ve watched him and Larry (Baker) work together day in and day out,” Bronson told the Anchorage Rotary after his election in 2021. (Wilbanks is now 23. Baker is a senior policy adviser whom Demboski accused of pressuring the city attorney over a domestic violence criminal case involving Baker’s business partner.)

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Hess has been investigating complaints filed with his office by Demboski, who has accused the mayor, his policy adviser and some of his top executives of a slew of misdeeds. Allegations include illegal contracting, sexism and attempting to influence an ongoing criminal case. The former city manager outlined the allegations in separate letters to the ombudsman and the mayor.

[From Mayor Bronson’s first day in office, a domestic violence case loomed over Anchorage City Hall]

During a special meeting about Demboski’s allegations on Thursday night, the Anchorage Assembly incorporated Hess’ memo about the alleged surveillance of employees into its public record.

Accusations of attempting to intimidate employees are “serious, chilling allegations — even if no videos have been pulled,” Hess wrote in his memo to the mayor and Assembly.

Hess said this is the first time in his 10 years as ombudsman that he has referred a matter to the city prosecutor’s office.

Hess on Friday continued to decline to say which executive his memo refers to. Wilbanks’ letter is strange because it is a public record, he said.

“The person who disclosed his name was him (in the lawyers’ letter) — that he might be the person,” Hess said.

City attorneys have handed the case to state prosecutors to avoid a perceived conflict of interest.

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On Friday, Anchorage District Attorney Brittany Dunlop said that her office had received the referral late Thursday. The state’s Office of Special Prosecutions, overseen by Chief Assistant Attorney General Jenna Gruenstein, is reviewing it.

“We’ve received the referral and are in the process of evaluating it,” Gruenstein said. “And no decisions have been made.”

Hess wrote in Thursday’s memo that he brought the matter to the attention of the municipal prosecutors because he has a duty under city law to report potential “misconduct by municipal personnel.”

“Given the gravity of the accusations, and based on the statements of multiple Municipal employees, I reasonably believe that there may have been a breach of duty, misconduct, or illegal activity by a Municipal employee,” Hess wrote to the Assembly and mayor.

The Daily News’ Thursday report on the matter made no mention of Wilbanks or his job title.

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Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email khopkins@adn.com

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