Politics

In lawsuit, former assistant accuses Alaska governor candidate Charlie Pierce of sexual harassment

Gubernatorial debate

In a lawsuit filed Friday, a former executive assistant to Alaska gubernatorial candidate Charlie Pierce said Pierce sexually harassed her when he was Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor.

The complaint, filed in state court by Kenai resident Pamela Wastell, accuses Pierce of “constant unwanted physical touching, sexual remarks, and sexual advances” and says the borough government failed to protect her. The 19-page filing names Pierce and the borough as defendants, and claims the borough provided no way to report harassment or discrimination without fear of reprisal.

Wastell worked as an executive assistant to Pierce including in 2021 and the first six months of 2022, according to the lawsuit.

Pierce is one of four candidates for governor, and one of two Republicans, to advance to the Nov. 8 general election under Alaska’s new voting system. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has urged voters to rank the fellow Republican second on ballots in the state’s new ranked choice voting system.

Pierce had one year left in his term as borough mayor when he announced his resignation on Aug. 26. He said at the time that he was leaving the job to focus on campaigning for governor.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly later revealed that Pierce had been the subject of a “credible” harassment complaint made in July, and had been asked to consider resigning. But the identity of the employee who made the complaint and the details of the alleged harassment were not made public until the lawsuit Friday.

Pierce did not respond to emailed questions about the lawsuit and Wastell’s accusations, and later referred questions to his attorney. The attorney whom Pierce told a reporter to contact, Richard Moses, said he could not comment until he had had time to review the complaint.

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All four candidates for governor attended a forum Saturday at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage, where the subject of the lawsuit did not come up during the debate. Afterward, Pierce again declined to answer questions.

“I have no comments about future litigation,” he said.

Kenai Peninsula Borough attorney Sean Kelley wrote in an email Friday that he had not been served with the lawsuit yet and therefore could not comment.

In a state with the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation, several Alaska political leaders have resigned in recent years following accusations of inappropriate interactions with women, sexual harassment or worse.

Former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott resigned in 2018 after a woman said he propositioned her at an Anchorage hotel. Former Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz resigned in 2020 after admitting to an “inappropriate messaging relationship” with a television news reporter. Attorney General Kevin Clarkson quit the same year after a Daily News and ProPublica investigation found he had sent hundreds of inappropriate text messages to a state employee. The attorney general appointee to replace Clarkson, Ed Sniffen, resigned six months later after a woman said he had sex with her when she was 17 and he was a coach for her high school mock trial team. A grand jury in September indicted Sniffen, who has denied any wrongdoing, on charges of sexual abuse of a minor.

The lawsuit by Wastell says the Kenai Peninsula Borough failed to protect employees from a pattern of harassment.

“When an elected official abuses their power and position to sexually harass public servants, they must be held accountable,” Wastell’s attorney said in an email.

It marks at least the third time the borough has faced legal fees or settlements over complaints involving Pierce. Two prior cases prompted the borough to pay former employees a combined $267,000 in settlements.

Those settlements did not involve sexual harassment, although Friday’s lawsuit suggests that if the new case goes to trial, additional borough employees might be called to testify about alleged sexual harassment by Pierce.

“KPB knew or should have known that Pierce was a sexual harasser and bully,” the lawsuit says. “Prior to Wastell’s constructive discharge, KPB, through Pierce, subjected at least four other employees to discrimination, bullying, harassment, retaliation, and/or termination.”

In the lawsuit, Wastell accuses Pierce of:

• Touching her breast.

• Sexual remarks.

• “False imprisonment in his private office.”

• Unwanted and unsolicited embraces and massages.

• Kissing her neck and face.

• Asking questions about the details of her sex life.

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• Telling her that only he alone could fire her within the borough and that she would not want to say no to him.

After being largely absent from the campaign trail since the August primary, Pierce has been actively campaigning in recent days, including an appearance in a statewide televised debate Wednesday.

Wastell refused an interview request through her attorney, Caitlin Shortell. Neither Shortell nor the Kenai Peninsula Borough attorney would say how much the borough offered Wastell in any proposed settlements.

Previous complaints

Pierce is a former manager for Enstar Natural Gas who served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly before his election as mayor in 2017. (Wastell has worked for the borough since 2013, according to the lawsuit.)

In 2019, the borough’s former human resources director, Sandra “Stormy” Brown, filed a lawsuit accusing the borough and Pierce of gender discrimination, disability discrimination and creating a hostile work environment. Brown said in the lawsuit that Pierce fired her after she told him she had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.

Through mediation, the borough agreed to pay Brown $150,000 to settle the case. Of that amount, $15,000 was paid for lost wages and $135,000 was paid for “emotional distress damages,” according to mediation records obtained through a public records request.

The borough agreed to pay $117,000 to settle a Dec. 15, 2021, complaint from a subsequent human resources director. In exchange, the employee agreed he would not “make any further allegations of ‘illegal acts’ by Mayor Pierce” and would “withdraw and rescind any allegations of bullying.”

Wastell, who by then was working directly for Mayor Pierce, served as the notary for the agreement.

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Calls for Pierce to drop out of race

Pierce entered the governor’s race the following month. According to the lawsuit, he increased the intensity and frequency of sexual harassment throughout the first half of 2022.

The complaint alleges that two other female borough employees were sexually harassed, including one who reported harassment to the borough attorney, Kelley.

Wastell made a complaint against Pierce on July 11. The borough placed her on paid administrative leave and hired a law firm to look into the allegations. On Sept. 1, the fifth-place finisher in the primary election, Rep. Christopher Kurka, R-Wasilla, called on Pierce to drop out of the race and allow him to take his place on the ballot.

“If Charlie doesn’t intend to run a serious campaign, he still has time to honor the wishes of his supporters who want a conservative alternative to Dunleavy,” Kurka said in a statement emailed by his campaign.

The deadline to withdraw passed, and Pierce stayed in the race and on the ballot.

A spokesman for Dunleavy, Andrew Jensen, did not respond to emailed and texted questions about whether the lawsuit Friday impacted the governor’s endorsement of Pierce as second choice on the ballot. When a Daily News reporter approached him after the AFN forum on Saturday, Dunleavy stopped talking to bystanders and walked out an exit. Jensen later wrote in a Tweet that by the time the reporter approached, Dunleavy had already finished speaking to everyone who had been waiting to speak with him. Another member of his staff said the governor was too busy to talk to a reporter.

The lawsuit says that the borough has urged Wastell — who has been on paid administrative leave since making a report of sexual harassment in July — to return to work. On Wednesday, Wastell received a notice telling her that if she did not soon return, the borough would “sever the employment relationship due to a refusal to work.”

Shortell said that returning to the office wasn’t an option.

“The borough has not made the workplace safe,” she said. “They have not implemented processes that would make employees, including Ms. Wastell, safe in the future from retaliation, bullying and other harassment.”

Daily News reporter Iris Samuels contributed to this article. This story has been updated to include details from a candidate forum on Saturday.

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Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email khopkins@adn.com

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