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Internal report says Alaska Mental Health Trust nominee ‘acted inappropriately’ at Juneau bar

Downtown Juneau, Jan. 15, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

JUNEAU — A state appointee from Gov. Mike Dunleavy is facing scrutiny after an employee of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority complained about his behavior in a Juneau bar in January.

Human resources staff at the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority investigated a report from a woman and interviewed two witnesses who supported her account. The woman said Joe Riggs touched her on the cheek and shoulder during a conversation that made her uncomfortable. The report found evidence that Riggs “acted inappropriately.” There are no allegations of criminal conduct.

Riggs has been nominated to be a trustee on the trust’s board and, if appointed, would not directly supervise the woman. He would be among a group of trustees who oversee the trust’s CEO, who in turn supervises employees.

“I find there is reasonable evidence to conclude the nominee behaved inappropriately during this interaction,” a human resources investigator wrote in a memo dated March 19 to the woman who made the complaint. “While this incident did not occur in the workplace, it did involve a potential trustee of the AMHTA, and it understandably upset you.”

Riggs says their depiction of events is untrue and he was not aware of the HR memo until informed by the Daily News.

“Any allegations that were made, I did not know what they were until just now, and they are false. I emphatically say that they are false,” he said.

He said he thinks the complaint is politically motivated and may be an attempt to derail yet another appointment by a Republican governor. Several Dunleavy nominees have withdrawn their names from legislative consideration this year because of information uncovered during the confirmation process.

“I feel blindsided and hurt that someone would inject politics into trying to help folks with mental illness and disabilities,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage helped the woman reach a reporter. She lives in his district and had sought his advice on the matter, both said.

“My senator just happens to be a Democrat. It wouldn’t matter if he was a Republican; I would have gone to him anyway,” the woman said in an interview Tuesday.

In an earlier interview, the woman said she wants the public to know about the incident and make up their own minds. “Ultimately, this is information the Legislature and the public should have as they decide whether he is an appropriate mental health trust appointee,” she said.

Based on his knowledge of the matter, Begich said he wouldn’t support Riggs’ nomination.

“There are only five (lawmakers) that I’ve spoken to in caucus, and they all have expressed concerns based on the issue, but they don’t know all of the details of the issue,” Begich said Monday.

Many legislators are just learning of the complaint, and it is not clear how it will affect his confirmation.

Senate Majority Leader Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, said the Legislature’s policy has been to give any nominee from the governor a “fair shake.” She hasn’t heard the complaint against Riggs in full, but she would be interested in hearing what he has to say, she said.

Riggs is one of three people nominated by Dunleavy to the Mental Health Trust Authority Board of Trustees, where he would be one of seven people in charge of managing more than $500 million in investments, plus vast tracts of land and real estate across Alaska.

The complaint puts the Mental Health Trust in an awkward position. Riggs is not yet an employee and cannot be censured like one. The March 19 memo does not state any proposed action.

The woman involved in the complaint provided a redacted version of testimony she and two acquaintances gave the HR investigator. A reporter spoke to all three separately by phone as well.

According to their accounts, the woman and two other people visited the Triangle Club, a well-known Juneau bar frequented by politicos, after a day of mental health trust board meetings Jan. 31. Riggs was already there, socializing with others at the bar, the report said.

When the three newcomers arrived, Riggs moved unprompted to the seat next to the woman and began talking about work issues, they said. As the conversation continued, Riggs began touching the woman, putting his hand on her shoulders and back, and at one point brushed the back of one hand against her cheek, they said. The details of the physical contact differ slightly in the three accounts. Seeing her discomfort, the woman’s two acquaintances made excuses to leave and prepared to bring her along, the report said.

In an interview, the woman said she was uncomfortable with the contact but didn’t feel she could say something because Riggs was a prospective supervisor.

“Riggs seemed disappointed and acted surprised that she wasn’t staying with him. We chimed in and said, ‘No, she’s leaving too,’ to which he responded, ‘You’re not gonna stay?! You mean I can’t corrupt you and convince you to stay with me?’ or something to that effect. At that point it had gone too far so we didn’t really allow him much opportunity to engage us ... and we left," one of the witnesses told the HR investigator.

Riggs said their account isn’t true and provided a copy of testimony he emailed the HR investigator.

He said he had previously met a friend at another bar for a musical event but cut off his drinking because he suffers from migraines if he drinks too much.

While walking back to his hotel, he looked through the windows of the Triangle and saw some people he knew. He went in and talked with them, drinking cranberry juice, and noticed the woman and her two acquaintances, whom he remembered from the mental health trust meeting earlier in the day.

He said he tried to strike up a conversation with the acquaintances about a particular aspect of mental health treatment, but they seemed reluctant to talk.

He noted that he tends to talk with his hands but doesn’t think he touched the woman who made the complaint. It’s possible he touched her shoulder, he said.

At one point in their conversation, he observed that the woman was uncomfortable with continuing their talk.

According to his written statement, “It was obvious that the colleagues wanted the conversation to end and we made a couple short pleasantries before the colleagues said that it was time to go. I replied with a good-natured ‘But I just got here.’ I asked if (the) employee was leaving as well, she said yes and I replied with a good-natured ‘At least I can’t be blamed for keeping you out past bedtime.’ This entire conversation took 10 minutes.”

Mike Abbott, CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, said he was prohibited from talking about the issue for two reasons: First, it involves a personnel matter, and those are considered confidential. Second, it involves a trustee seeking legislative confirmation, and it would be “inappropriate for a staff person at the trust to comment on that either.”

Gina Ritacco, director of the governor’s office of boards and commissions, said in a prepared statement, “This incident was investigated and addressed as an HR matter, a process that included everyone involved and provided recommendations for resolution. We consider this matter to be closed."

According to his resume, Riggs has an extensive history as an investment adviser and a medical device representative. As he explained, his job is to help doctors use their equipment to the greatest degree possible, including offering advice within the operating room.

Riggs is married with two children. The oldest of the children has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and during his confirmation hearings in the Legislature, Riggs said he would be the only trustee who is a parent to someone who might benefit from the trust.

“I just want to help. I want to help our beneficiaries for the mental health trust. I don’t want to deal with this. I just want to help Alaskans,” he said by phone.

Riggs’ next confirmation hearing is scheduled for Friday in the House Finance Committee.

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