The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will meet Tuesday in executive session to discuss a sexual harassment claim filed last year against former Mayor Charlie Pierce by his assistant.
Pamela Wastell, who was employed by the borough from 2013 until Pierce resigned in August 2022, alleged in a legal complaint filed last October that the Kenai Peninsula Borough failed to protect her and other employees from sexual harassment and bullying by Pierce. Pierce at the time was a candidate for Alaska governor.
Wastell’s complaint said that, while she worked as Pierce’s executive assistant from 2021 to 2022, she was subjected to a hostile work environment and sexual harassment by Pierce, including “sexual remarks, embraces, kisses, touching her breast, false imprisonment in his private office, massages, discussion of his sex life and questions as to Wastell’s sexual preferences and desires.”
Per the borough, Wastell was put on paid administrative leave after Wastell’s former legal counsel contacted Kenai Peninsula Borough Attorney Sean Kelley to report the allegation of sexual harassment on July 11. The borough, for about $17,800, hired Anchorage firm Ashburn & Mason to investigate Wastell’s claim, which was determined to be “credible.”
The borough has previously paid out a total of $267,000 in settlements for allegations involving Pierce, including to former human resources directors Stormy Brown and Kim Saner.
Because Tuesday’s discussion is being held in executive session, the meeting will not be open to the public.
A copy of liability claims obtained by the Clarion last year show that the borough estimates the “Wastell v. KPB” claim to cost $150,000 in general liability funds. Kenai Peninsula Borough Risk Manager Sovala Kisena said Wednesday that number, to his knowledge, hasn’t changed.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough, in a Feb. 10 response to Wastell’s complaint, denied many of the allegations made in her suit, including that it did not implement procedures through which employees could report discrimination, sexual harassment or retaliation.
The borough concludes that the damages claimed by Wastell were not caused by “the actions or inactions” of the borough. It denies her claims that three other borough employees experienced bullying or harassment by Pierce and that Wastell told the borough’s risk manager that she could not continue working because of Pierce.
The borough agreed that, on one unidentified occasion, Pierce indicated that there was “so much he wanted to do for (Wastell).”
The borough, in the response to Wastell’s complaint, says it requested on Oct. 6 and on Oct. 10 that Wastell return from paid administrative leave and resume her work at the borough, but says she “abandoned her position by refusing to work” even after Pierce resigned.
Pierce, who stepped down as borough mayor on Aug. 26, said at the time he was doing so to focus full-time on his gubernatorial campaign.
In his own legal response to Wastell’s complaint, filed in early December 2022, Pierce denied Wastell’s allegations of harassment, including that he subjected her to a hostile work environment. The response further asserts Wastell has not sustained damages and failed to exhaust administrative remedies.
Among other things, the response denies that Pierce subjected Wastell to sexual remarks, embraces, discussions of his sex life, as well as that he sequestered Wastell in his office, kissed her neck and cheek, and tried to give her money or buy her things.
“Pierce’s actions, if any, were not sufficiently severe and pervasive as to create a hostile work environment,” the response says.
The response asserts that any such actions by Pierce were in self-defense, were necessary, were in a manner related to his employment or were in good faith. Further, the response says Pierce did not owe a duty of care to Wastell and his actions discharged a duty “authorized or imposed by law.”
Both Pierce and the borough ask in their responses to the complaint that Wastell “take nothing” through the suit and that they be awarded the costs and attorney fees it incurred as a result of the lawsuit.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.