The former chief executive officer of Chugach Electric Association, fired this spring after less than a month on the job, plans to challenge the utility, asserting that he was unjustly terminated and is owed millions of dollars in damages, his attorney said.
Chugach Electric, the largest utility in Alaska, filed a lawsuit in the dispute on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage. It says Hal Halpern was terminated “for cause” and that the next step in the dispute must be handled by a mutually agreed arbitrator in Anchorage, and not in a court trial.
Halpern was hired March 8, the utility’s complaint says. He was notified of his termination April 1.
Before taking the job with Chugach Electric, Halpern had previously worked for Cooperative Light & Power in Minnesota, serving for more than three years as CEO, the utility said in March when announcing Halpern’s hiring.
Clayton Halunen, Halpern’s attorney in Minneapolis, said Friday that Halpern will argue in court that he was discriminated against due to his age after the utility learned his date of birth in a background check.
Halpern is 62 but looks like he’s in his 50s, Halunen said. Halpern will argue that the utility wanted someone years younger, not so close to the typical retirement age of 65.
“You would think they would do their due diligence before they hired him,” Halunen said.
Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman for the utility, said Friday that she could not comment on the issue because it involves an active case and a personnel matter.
Chugach Electric has not provided a reason for Halpern’s termination, including in its seven-page complaint.
The complaint includes an employment agreement with Halpern. The annual base salary was $499,000. The compensation included a 25% bonus annually for meeting board goals, amounting to $125,000 for the first year of payment. It included a relocation expense of up to $88,000. The utility reported net revenue of $9.6 million in 2021, close to doubling 2020. Last year was Chugach’s first full year of operation since acquiring Anchorage Municipal Light and Power.
Halpern’s attorney said the utility has claimed in discussions that it believes Halpern embellished aspects of his college and professional history. That is not true, Halunen said.
“There is no just cause. The reasons they gave are ridiculous,” Halunen said.
Halunen said his client was “fraudulently induced” by the utility to sign a contract that included a provision for a three-month probationary period. Halpern was assured by the utility board that the provision was a technicality that would not apply to him, Halunen said.
“He signed the document, absolutely, but it was based on that representation,” Halunen said.
The utility said in its court filing that Halpern indicated in a May 2 letter that he plans to file his case in federal district court in Minnesota. The utility wants the Alaska court to decide that the arbitration agreement with Halpern is binding, and that an arbitrator will decide next steps in the dispute.
Halunen said his client planned to work for many years at the utility, and will seek lost compensation for those years, as well as emotional damages after leaving his longtime employer in Minnesota.
“He was very excited about this job, and to have this pulled from him and to resign his other job ... is unfortunate,” Halunen said.