Former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor and current Alaska gubernatorial candidate Charlie Pierce speaks at a “Get Out the Vote” rally hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Republican Women at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor and current Alaska gubernatorial candidate Charlie Pierce speaks at a “Get Out the Vote” rally hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Republican Women at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Borough to pay more than $237K to settle sexual harassment suit

As part of the settlement, the borough is not admitting any wrongdoing

KENAI — Pamela Wastell, a former employee of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, will be paid $237,500 as part of a settlement agreement stemming from a sexual harassment lawsuit she brought against the borough and former borough Mayor Charlie Pierce.

That’s according to a joint statement from Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved for release by assembly members on Tuesday. The same statement says that, as part of the settlement, the borough is not admitting any wrongdoing.

Wastell said in the suit, filed last October, that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and sexual harassment by Pierce while she worked as his executive assistant from 2021 to 2022.

That harassment, Wastell alleged, 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 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. An investigation into Wastell’s claim by Anchorage firm Ashburn & Mason cost the borough about $17,800 and found Wastell’s claims to be credible.

Parties react

In opting to forgo going to trial, the borough said in the Tuesday statement that it hoped to avoid spending more public funds.

“Prolonged litigation will result in the expenditure of more public funds and not serve to bring finality to a trying and difficult time,” the statement says. “Neither the Assembly nor Mayor Micciche are happy with all aspects of this settlement, but we also recognize that years of litigation on this matter is not in the best interest of the Borough, or the taxpayers.”

The statement also cited new policies implemented by current Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche, who was elected in February to serve out the remainder of Pierce’s term, which ends in October.

Richard Moses, Pierce’s attorney, said Tuesday that Pierce also did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement, reached a few weeks ago. Pierce and his wife, Moses said, “are looking forward to moving on with the rest of their lives.”

“I think a settlement in which no admissions of liability and no fault being found is pretty much, once the complaint was filed, about the best we could hope for at this early stage in the litigation without rolling the dice at trial,” Moses said.

Moses also said that Pierce is not paying any part of the settlement amount.

“No money is coming out of Charlie’s bank account,” Moses said.

Micciche said Tuesday evening that it is “the understanding of the borough at this time” that Pierce would pay a portion of the settlement agreement. The statement approved for release by assembly members Tuesday says Pierce will pay $31,250 as part of the agreement. The borough will pay $206,250.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Attorney Sean Kelley said later on Tuesday evening that the $31,250 is not being paid by Pierce personally or by the borough, but rather by the Alaska Municipal League’s Joint Insurance pool. According to the league’s website, participating entities pay a contribution to the pool and can receive coverage and make claims.

Attorney Caitlin Shortell, Wastell’s lawyer, wrote in a press release provided upon request to the Clarion that Pierce “terrorized” Wastell and said “several individuals” contacted her law office and Wastell after Wastell’s suit was filed to corroborate the claims made and convey their support.

Wastell, in a statement provided to the Clarion by Shortell, shared her first public comments since the suit was filed. She underscored the damage of a hostile work environment and talked about her decision to come forward.

“Being sexually harassed and working in a hostile work environment is nothing that any employee should ever have to endure,” Wastell wrote. “Nor should an employer allow it to happen. There is no price tag on the impact it has on a harassment victim’s life. The fear alone, and the mental and physical destruction of a victim’s body and personal life is more than anyone should have to bear. There were so many days I dreaded coming to work.”

Wastell went on to say that, after working for the borough for almost 10 years, she had planned to retire in the next five and a half years. At the time of the alleged harassment, the borough did not have a human resources director and Wastell said she did not feel comfortable reporting the harassment to the acting human resources director. The acting director at the time, Aaron Rhoades, was also Pierce’s chief of staff and a longtime friend, although Wastell did not name Rhoades in her statement.

“Employees should always feel safe and free of sexual harassment in the workplace. A powerful political figure like Charlie Pierce should NOT have the ability to sexually harass and destroy the lives of employees and must be held accountable for his actions.”

Wastell ended her statement by calling on the Kenai Peninsula Borough to do a better job in the future of protecting employees.

New policies

Micciche during Tuesday’s assembly meeting read from the borough’s new Sexual Harassment, Bullying, and Discrimination Prevention Policy which went live Monday morning. Among other things, that policy says employees, bystanders and other witnesses can report violations of the policy “in the manner that they feel is safest under the circumstances.”

The new policy applies to borough employees and volunteers as well as borough “officials,” a category that includes the borough mayor, borough assembly members and elected or appointed members of all borough service area boards, commissions, committees, task forces and work groups.

“Effective bullying discrimination and sexual harassment policy requires early intervention and that will be apparent in how this process will work going forward,” Micciche told the Clarion in an interview last week.

The policy newly defines sexual harassment, bullying, other harassment, unlawful discrimination and retaliation, and outlines a clear reporting process for employees and witnesses.

That reporting may happen through a new online reporting tool, which went live earlier this year. Reports submitted using that tool will automatically be sent to a standing three-member, mixed-gender panel of borough directors established by the borough mayor. Employees can also submit reports to their supervisors, borough administrators, the borough human resources director or the borough attorney.

Further, the new policy says any violations will be investigated by the borough’s human resources director, now Justen Huff, or by the borough attorney or an independent investigator. Whoever receives or investigates the complaint is required to notify law enforcement if the complaint appears to be criminal in nature.

Allegations made against an elected official, the chief of staff, the human resources director, the borough attorney or the borough finance director will be “immediately referred” to an independent investigator, the revised policy says.

Any misconduct that constitutes a violation of the revised policy “will be addressed immediately and appropriately.” Violations of the policy may result in termination, suspension or other disciplinary action depending on the severity of the conduct.

In the case of complaints against elected officials, who are not subject to discipline by the borough attorney or human resources director, reports will be referred to assembly members uninvolved with the report. The assembly may then request via resolution the resignation of the elected official, initiate a recall process of the official or take other actions deemed appropriate under the circumstances.

“We’ll continue evaluating it and we’re open to your ideas, but I feel at this time that we have a comprehensive policy in place that will protect our employees moving forward,” Micciche told assembly members Tuesday.

Micciche told the Clarion last week that the borough’s human resources policies, along with some others, will be put on a review schedule so that it will be more clear when those policies were last reviewed and to provide regularity.

“We’ll be putting them on a schedule so, say, every three years depending on the criticality of the procedure and the policy we’ll have a catalog of those policies, and we’ll know which date they were last reviewed, and we’ll have a schedule for them being reviewed again and updated,” Micciche said.

Tuesday’s assembly meeting will be available to stream on the borough’s website at kpb.legistar.com.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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