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Mat-Su Borough mayor involved in court battle over leased Iditarod team

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 15, 2016

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough mayor and a dog musher are suing each other for tens of thousands of dollars after an agreement to train together for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race 2016 turned sour.

Gwenn Bogart filed her suit against Mayor Vern Halter in December. She argues that Halter, a veteran who has placed among the top five mushers in three Iditarod races, broke a contract by failing to provide her training, housing and a dog team. She's asking him to return a $15,000 deposit and wants him to pay her for work she did at his business in Willow.

The contract called for training, coaching and housing aimed at getting Bogart across the Iditarod finish line during this year's race, including a team of dogs. It listed a handful of agreed-upon services and what was expected of Bogart. For example, she was required to work with the dogs on a daily basis, the contract says.

Halter has filed a counterclaim against Bogart. He denies he owes her the deposit and instead insists she owes him money. Under the payment Bogart agreed to follow, she would have to pay a total of $52,000 from October to March, Halter said in his claim. Bogart failed to make the payments, he said.

"The unpaid balance is $37,000," the counterclaim asserted.

Veteran musher Mitch Seavey said the practice of people paying for training and for a sled-dog team fits into the goal of a kennel in keeping a second team prepared. Some kennels employ mushers to run the second team, training for potential use in the coming year, he said.

"That evolved into a realization that people were willing to pay for the experience to run a team from a top kennel," Seavey said. It's not extremely common, he said, but there are two to three teams doing so in each Iditarod.

"If I'm approached by someone who loves the sport of mushing and loves dogs, I see no reason why we can't work out an arrangement that's beneficial for both of us," he said.

Bogart agreed to pay $52,000 for a chance to finish the race. She made a down payment of $15,000 on April 15, five months before she planned to move into Halter's Dream a Dream Dog Farm.

Halter owns and operates the kennel and bed-and-breakfast in Willow with his wife, Susan Whiton. Both seasoned mushers, they trained several Iditarod finishers who had similar arrangements as Bogart.

Halter trained and provided a team for Cindy Abbott during last year's Iditarod. Abbott came in last and took the Red Lantern prize, but she completed the race.

Bogart also competed in the 2015 race using a team from Jason Mackey, but she scratched in Tanana. But, "she is determined and focused," Halter wrote in the contract, a copy of which is in the lawsuit's court file. "She has the support of her husband and the financial means to accomplish the goal."

"Vern (Halter) may or may not race preliminary races but he usually does. Decisions as to who will drive which dogs will be made by Vern but based on advice of the Mushers. The goal is to qualify someone and to produce the best Iditarod team possible which is to be driven by Gwen (Bogart)," the contract says.

Bogart wrote in a letter dated Sept. 9 to the Iditarod Trail Committee that she'd chosen Halter, in part, due to his charming and gregarious personality in public.

Bogart claimed she worked about 160 hours at Halter's kennel and is entitled to payment. She said she left the kennel after experiencing Halter's "bad temper and bad language" at the end of a late summer training run, the suit said. She's been trying to get her money back ever since, according to the court record.

Bogart could not be reached for comment. Halter referred questions to his attorney, Eric Jensen, who did not return a call.

In his counterclaim, Halter said that Bogart left "the training facility" on Sept. 5 and abandoned her efforts to fulfill the agreed-upon contact. That breach caused him a financial loss for the entire 2015-2016 training season, he said. He's asking for an unspecified amount of compensatory damages.

A pretrial conference is set for March 10 in Palmer.

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