The former director of the city Office of Equal Opportunity filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday accusing Mayor Dave Bronson of firing her in retaliation for investigating alleged illegal acts by the mayor’s leadership team.
The complaint mirrors a lawsuit that Heather MacAlpine filed nearly a year ago in state court. The city answered that lawsuit in July, saying MacAlpine was not fired in retaliation for acting as a whistleblower and denying claims that a library official made racist statements.
“Despite her good standing and stellar job performance, (Municipality of Anchorage) terminated Ms. MacAlpine for reporting the complaints made by MOA employees regarding JE’s conduct,” the new lawsuit claims, using the initials for Judy Eledge, who at the time was Bronson’s appointee to serve as acting library director.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, says MacAlpine was investigating claims by library employees that under Eledge the workplace had become toxic, rife with discriminatory remarks, political favoritism and emotional distress.
Last week, a city attorney asked a state judge to issue a gag order preventing MacAlpine and her attorneys from talking about her claims against the city.
In that request, filed Feb. 13, assistant municipal attorney Linda Johnson asked that MacAlpine be ordered to not speak about potential depositions given by Bronson, former Municipal Manager Amy Demboski and other witnesses in the state lawsuit.
“MacAlpine knows or should know that providing selective items of evidence and making statements to the media would have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding, especially in light of the media attention paid to the current administration,” Johnson wrote on behalf of the city.
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MacAlpine’s attorney, Eva Gardner, refused an interview request Wednesday. Johnson didn’t respond to a phone call or emails.
In response to questions about the federal lawsuit, Bronson spokesman Hans Rodvik responded by email, “We have received the following advice from the Legal Department, that due to the pending litigation at hand we cannot comment on this matter.”
The Bronson administration has been under a public spotlight since Demboski—- who ran the city on a daily basis for Bronson and was once among his most ardent public supporters — sent a letter to the city saying she had been fired for flagging potential illegal activity. Demboski made a slew of allegations against the mayor and his executives and advisers, including assertions of corruption, unlawful contracting and enabling an adviser to attempt to obstruct an ongoing criminal case.
Bronson fired MacAlpine on May 11. Her lawsuits say the firing came as she began investigating claims by employees that Bronson’s pick to run the library had made racist statements and other derogatory comments.
The filing includes several examples of discriminatory remarks staff reported that Eledge made during her tenure as acting library director.
“Employees told MacAlpine that JE had used the term ‘Eskimo,’ and stated that (Alaska Natives) ‘diddle their kids’ and infect them with venereal disease,” according to the complaint. “(Eledge) stated ‘The atmosphere here has gone downhill with woke movements like Black Lives Matter … I’m telling you, the woke culture is killing libraries and this country. If I could get rid of those employees I could turn this library around for good.’”
According to MacAlpine and her lawyers, there were other comments that were sexist, disparaged disabled people, and were politically hostile.
The lawsuit says the discrimination extended beyond remarks and into library policy.
“They also reported that (Eledge) had instructed security to enforce (the Loussac Library’s) ‘one bag’ policy -- allowing patrons to bring only one bag into the library -- in a selective, discriminatory way. Specifically, she instructed security not to enforce the policy against ‘mothers with diaper bags,’ but to enforce it strictly against individuals who appeared homeless, many of whom appeared to be Alaska Native,” the filing states.
On multiple occasions, according to MacAlpine, library employees heard Eledge say that her job was protected because of her close relationship with Bronson.
“I’m untouchable. No one can fire me in my position,” Eledge is alleged to have said. “The mayor picked me, he put me here for a reason -- he won’t fire me.”
Eledge did not immediately respond to an email or phone call about the new federal filing. In its answer to MacAlpine’s lawsuit in state court, the city denied that Eledge had made racist statements and denied that she claimed she could not be fired and that she ordered selective enforcement of the bag policy.
Both lawsuits name the mayor and former human resources director NIki Tshibaka, among other city employees, as defendants.
Tshibaka resigned Feb. 6, citing “an increasingly toxic, hostile, and demoralizing work environment.” In his letter of resignation, Tshibaka wrote that he had been directed to “vet and onboard” former city health director Joe Gerace in a single day. The state filed a lawsuit against Gerace in December, claiming he owes more than $61,000 after fraudulently claiming to be a high-ranking former U.S. military officer.
MacAlpine’s lawsuit says that MacAlpine had received positive feedback on the job she was doing not long before she began investigating Eledge and complaints about the library. According to the filing, the city’s human resources department “has received instructions from Mayor Bronson, or someone acting on his behalf, not to investigate JE or take any disciplinary action against her.”
Eledge still works for the municipality and is listed as the deputy director of library services online.
MacAlpine’s lawsuit is seeking that she be reinstated to her former job, receive back pay and compensatory damages, along with punitive damages and attorney’s fees. If a jury decides the case in her favor at trial that would mean the municipality would be on the financial hook once damages are determined.
In the city’s Feb. 13 request for a gag order, Johnson wrote that the accusations against the mayor had become the subject of a “media frenzy.” The filing included copies of letters exchanged between the city and MacAlpine’s attorney.
In one Feb. 9 letter, MacAlpine’s lawyer wrote: “I trust your letter is not a threat by your client to refuse to engage in discovery unless our client agrees to confidentiality requirements not imposed by the law or the court.”
Johnson did not respond to questions asking if the mayor would indeed refuse to engage in the discovery process if MacAlpine did not agree to a confidentiality agreement.