The Kenai Peninsula Borough failed to protect employees from sexual harassment and bullying by former borough mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Charlie Pierce, a lawsuit filed Friday in state court alleges.
The suit, which was first reported by the Anchorage Daily News on Friday, was filed by Pierce’s former executive assistant Pamela Wastell, who describes multiple incidents of sexual harassment by Pierce while she worked as his assistant. Wastell has worked at the Kenai Peninsula Borough since 2013 and served as Pierce’s executive assistant from 2021 to 2022.
The suit names both the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Pierce as defendants.
The harassment, which the complaint says began in early 2021 and continued through July 2022, included “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.”
The complaint further identifies at least four other borough employees who alleged sexual harassment, discrimination or bullying by Pierce, including former human resources directors Stormi Brown and Kim Saner, to whom the borough has paid out a total of $267,000 in settlements for allegations involving Pierce.
In each of those four cases, the complaint says, the borough did not implement procedures to protect employees from discrimination, harassment or retaliation and therefore failed to protect Wastell from sexual harassment by Pierce.
“(The Kenai Peninsula Borough) knew or should have known that Pierce was a sexual harasser and bully,” the complaint says.
The complaint says Wastell experienced sexual harassment beginning in January 2021 that became worse in 2022. On more than one occasion, Pierce called Wastell into his office “to grab her and pull her tight to his body,” tried to give her money and called her into his office “just to look her up and down,” the complaint says.
“In response to Wastell’s evident discomforts and displeasure at his conduct, Pierce did not relent, but more than once got up from behind his desk and ordered her to come to him, where he would pull her in close, squeeze her so tight that she could not get away, kiss her neck and cheek, and detain her,” the complaint says.
Also described in the complaint is an alleged incident in which Pierce grabbed Wastell and kissed her on the neck before following her to her desk after she pulled away. It was after that incident that Wastell told the borough’s risk manager that she “did not think she could work (at the Borough) anymore and that she needed to leave,” the complaint says.
It was four days later that Wastell’s legal counsel contacted Kenai Peninsula Borough Attorney Sean Kelley to report the allegation of sexual harassment. The borough put Wastell on paid administrative leave and hired Anchorage firm Ashburn & Mason to conduct a confidential, internal human resources investigation.
A statement released by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly during a special meeting on Sept. 11 said that investigation found the claim to be “credible.” The same statement said Pierce was asked to consider submitting his resignation as a way to resolve the harassment allegation.
Pierce was most recently elected to the position of borough mayor in 2020, with a term set to expire in late 2023. After he left the borough, assembly members appointed former Borough Mayor Mike Navarre to the role. The borough will hold a special election during which a new interim mayor will be elected. Discussion of that special election is on the assembly’s Tuesday meeting agenda.
Wastell’s attorney, Caitlin Shortell of Shortell Law LLC, said via email on Monday that, through the lawsuit, Wastell is seeking an order declaring that the defendants broke the law and a judgment ordering defendants to pay for damages they caused. Those damages, Shortell said, include lost wages and benefits, pain and suffering and punitive damages against Pierce, among others.
“Ms. Wastell was forced out of her employment and cannot return because Defendants caused her ongoing medical damages and have not implemented procedures to protect employees from discrimination, retaliation, and harassment,” Shortell said.
Shortell said that the implementation of reporting procedures is how employers protect employees from unlawful practices and that to not have processes in place is “negligent, unlawful, and leads to liability for the employer.
“In addition to having a policy on paper, it is essential that the employer actually implement such policies, make reporting and investigation procedures impartial, and not retain serial harassers,” Shortell said. “In this case, after several employees asserted claims of discrimination, bullying, retaliation, and after one additional employee reported sexual harassment, the Borough retained Pierce and failed to put into place procedures to make employees safe.”
Friday’s lawsuit came almost a month after Pierce announced that he would be stepping down as borough mayor to focus full time on his 2022 gubernatorial bid. During appearances at the several gubernatorial forums and debates that have taken place since his resignation became official on Sept. 30, he has not been publicly asked about the circumstances surrounding his departure from the borough.
Former Alaska governor and current gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker, along with lieutenant governor candidate Heidi Drygas, on Saturday called for Pierce to drop out of the race for governor. The ticket also called for Gov. Mike Dunleavy to revoke his support for Pierce. Dunleavy has urged voters to rank Pierce second during the Nov. 8 general election.
“When a person in a position of power does something wrong, you don’t urge your supporters to vote for them,” Walker is quoted as saying in a press release. “You demand accountability. Charlie Pierce should suspend his campaign immediately, and Mike Dunleavy should not continue to support Pierce just because it helps with his personal political ambitions.”
Dunleavy said in a statement supplied by his reelection campaign that it would not be fair to make “snap judgements or draw any conclusions” from the complaint.
“The allegations as described are serious, and we have a system of due process under the law to vet these claims,” Dunleavy said. “Without any way to independently verify these claims at this late date, it would be inappropriate and unfair to all parties involved to make any snap judgments or draw any conclusions from a complaint filed just days ago. I’ve been focused on my race all along, and I’m asking all Alaskans for their support.”
Pierce’s attorney, Richard Moses of Holmes, Weddle & Barcott, said Monday that they have “no comment on pending litigation at this time.” Moses has represented Pierce since mid-July.
Kelley said Monday that the borough has not been served a complaint, that he has not read the complaint that was filed and that he has “no further comment at this time.”
“Once the KPB is served, the KPB will review the allegations and answer the allegations in accordance with applicable court rules,” Kelley said via email.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.