When does a text message constitute harassment?
A lawsuit by a former state prosecutor is posing that question, with the answer hinging on the context.
The former prosecutor, Florina Altshiler, said she was sexually harassed in 2014 when a state trooper told her that he would enjoy molesting her "slowly."
But the trooper, and the state, said Altshiler's complaint leaves out crucial information: that the two had exchanged dozens of texts, at least one of which was sexually charged, the day before the one Altshiler reported.
Altshiler prosecuted sexual assault cases for the state. She said she was fired for filing a harassment complaint, participating in a subsequent investigation and refusing to turn over her phone for a forensic search.
She has asked for $775,000, including back pay and lost benefits, moving expenses and $400,000 for emotional distress.
Documents filed in federal court last month laid out the state's response. In them, state attorneys said Altshiler was fired for poor judgment and for offering authorities incomplete information about the texts — specifically, by failing to tell them that her phone had exchanged more than 100 messages with the trooper the day before the one she complained about.
Altshiler, the state said, didn't claim that the case was about sexual harassment until she was fired. And it argued that she tried to "cloak herself" in federal anti-discrimination laws — known broadly as Title VII — as a means of avoiding disciplinary action.
Those laws, the state said, are "not a license to lie or mislead."
Altshiler was fired "for the legitimate, non-retaliatory reason that her lack of candor responding to the troopers' investigators raised serious questions about both her honesty and judgment," state attorneys Rebecca Cain and Margaret Paton Walsh wrote in a motion last month.
A spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law, Cori Mills, declined to comment further. Altshiler didn't respond to phone and email messages, and her attorneys, Christopher Hoke and Daniel Pace, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Altshiler, 35, is now managing attorney at a Buffalo, New York, legal office, where she specializes in labor law and property liability.
She grew up in New York City and arrived in Alaska in 2012 as part of a push by the Department of Law's criminal division director, John Skidmore, to hire more experienced attorneys instead of lawyers fresh from law school, according to a sworn statement from Skidmore.
Altshiler started working misdemeanors; her supervisors ultimately transferred her to the law department's sexual assault unit, according to court documents.
The incident with the trooper, Vance Peronto, came during a three-day sexual assault training in Anchorage for prosecutors and law enforcement. Altshiler, at the end of the course, handed her phone to a troopers sergeant, complaining that she had received "unsolicited and inappropriate text messages" from one of the other troopers at the training, according to the state's motion last month.
"In particular, she was concerned about a text that said the trooper 'would enjoy molesting her slowly,'" the state's motion said.
Altshiler told the sergeant that she'd never met the trooper before the training and had talked "only briefly" during breaks, "with nothing that she had interpreted as flirtatious occurring," according to the motion.
Altshiler subsequently told a trooper investigator that she wasn't personally offended by the texts, according to the motion. But she said the content of the messages made her worry about how Peronto could behave toward others and wanted to create a record of their exchange, the motion says.
Peronto didn't respond to requests for comment. But when investigators interviewed him, he gave a different story, according to the state's motion.
Peronto said he noticed Altshiler's cowboy boots and accent — she was born in Ukraine — and wrote his number on her notebook, in front of her during a break from the training on March 4, 2014, according to the motion. He suggested she text him, he said.
An hour later, Peronto got a text from a new number that said something like, "I hear you like little boys," according to the motion. Altshiler later explained to Peronto that she was referring to a presenter's comments about child molestation, Peronto said.
Peronto later produced records that show he exchanged more than 100 texts with Altshiler's phone that day, according to the state's motion.
But Peronto told investigators that he ultimately got frustrated and deleted the conversation when the sender wouldn't reveal their identity, the motion said.
The next day, according to the motion, Altshiler revealed to Peronto that she had sent the texts the day before, telling him: "You know I was just messing with you, don't you?"
Peronto acknowledged sending the lewd text to Altshiler that day. But he "explained its inappropriate character by reference to the substance of their texts the day before," according to the state's motion.
Troopers wanted to get to the bottom of the exchange, since officers known to have lied can create legal problems in court.
But in a series of meetings with investigators and her superiors, Altshiler initially denied exchanging the first round of texts with the trooper, according to court documents filed by the state.
Then, after being presented with the trooper's phone records, Altshiler gave an alternative explanation for the first series of texts, the motion said. She said she might have unknowingly texted the trooper thinking he was someone else she met on a mobile dating app, the state's recent motion said.
Altshiler also resisted requests to share her phone records or contents, according to the motion, ultimately telling Skidmore, her superior, it was because the phone "contained texts with a married district attorney with whom she'd been having an affair and that he had asked her not to turn over her phone."
Altshiler's attorneys, in their own court documents, referred to Skidmore's account as a "rumor" and "false statement."
At a subsequent meeting, Skidmore told Altshiler that he no longer trusted her judgment and ultimately offered her a transfer to a rural office in the Bristol Bay region, according to his sworn statement. Altshiler declined that offer, saying she would consider moving to an office in Palmer instead, Skidmore said.
Before Skidmore finished considering that option, he said, he got a call from an advocate at the state Office of Victims Rights asking why his department "was firing an employee for reporting sexual harassment."
Altshiler, Skidmore said he learned later, was at the victims' rights office when the call took place.
At that point, Skidmore said in his sworn statement, he decided that firing Altshiler was the appropriate move. Skidmore declined to comment.
Altshiler's attorneys said in a court filing that her allegations against the trooper, Peronto, were substantiated and that he was "officially reprimanded." The state troopers' agency, the Department of Public Safety, denied a request for records related to any reprimands of Peronto, citing the legal confidentiality of personnel information.
Peronto still works as a trooper based in Soldotna, according to state records.
Altshiler wanted to become a federal prosecutor in Alaska and tried to find another job in the state after she was fired, according to court documents subsequently filed by her attorneys.
But even after promising initial conversations, she never received any offers, they said. And in at least one case, she was told she didn't get a job "because of statements made by people in the district attorney's office in Anchorage," her attorneys said.
After moving to Buffalo, she started attending counseling sessions for attorneys suffering from depression, they said.