The Kenai Peninsula Borough hired an Anchorage legal firm to conduct a “confidential, internal investigation” in July, the borough’s attorney said Sunday, but he declined to say whether the investigation involved outgoing Mayor Charlie Pierce, now a candidate for Alaska governor.
A contract provided by borough attorney Sean Kelley following a public records request says the firm was “engaged to provide legal services in connection with an HR investigation” and to defend the borough against any claims related to the investigation.
Pierce announced on Friday that he will resign as Mayor on Sept. 30 and said in a written statement that he was quitting to focus on his run for governor.
Pierce finished fourth in Alaska’s top-four primary for governor, receiving 6.6% of the vote in uncertified final results released Friday night. The election is scheduled to be certified Sept. 2, whereupon Pierce will become one of four people competing in the Nov. 8 general election for governor. The others are incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Democratic former Rep. Les Gara, and independent former Gov. Bill Walker.
The other three candidates will appear in a debate hosted by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association this week. Organizer Kara Moriarty said Pierce told her that he would be traveling and unavailable to participate.
Pierce’s resignation announcement took place three days after a committee of the Kenai Borough Assembly held a pair of closed-door meetings to discuss “a specific legal matter that may have an immediate adverse effect upon the finances of the borough.”
All nine members of the Borough Assembly have declined to say whether the issue involves Pierce. Borough Assembly members either failed to return phone messages, declined comment or said they were unable to discuss the matter because it took place in executive session.
Pierce has declined to say whether the issue involves him.
Asked on Monday by radio host Michael Dukes to address the issue directly, Pierce said he was unable to discuss what occurred in the executive session and said it was “irresponsible” for people to speculate.
“In due time, certainly, those items will be resolved and then the facts will be disclosed,” Pierce said.
Pierce also said he would be spending some time vacationing after leaving office.
On Sunday afternoon, his lead spokesperson, Peter Zuyus, said he would be leaving the Pierce campaign. Zuyus said he had been hired as a consultant through the primary election and that his departure was unrelated to any other issues. He wasn’t sure who will be running Pierce’s campaign instead.
Kenai Peninsula Borough attorney Sean Kelley said that in July, the borough hired Ashburn and Mason, an Anchorage firm. The attorney named in the contract declined comment.
“That investigation was completed in July. Any internal documents or memorandum prepared for the purpose of or regarding the investigation are covered by attorney-client privilege, or attorney work product doctrine, or constitutional individual privacy protections, and cannot be released absent court order,” he said by email.
In 2019, the Kenai Peninsula Borough agreed to pay $150,000 to its former HR director to settle a lawsuit claiming that Pierce fired her after she revealed she had a terminal case of cancer.
The political website Alaska Landmine published an article Friday speculating that Pierce had resigned as part of a new workplace harassment settlement.
Kelley said that is untrue.
“Mayor Pierce voluntarily resigned. There is no settlement agreement that required or called for Mayor Pierce to resign. There is no applicable settlement agreement. There has been no monetary settlement. There are no signed agreements,” he said.
Asked whether the borough is facing a lawsuit, Kelley said, “I cannot comment on threatened or pending litigation, including the existence or non-existence of threatened litigation, except to say that the KPB has not been served with a publicly filed quasi-judicial administrative or judicial complaint related to any of the allegations raised in Alaska Landmine story (or any other similar news stories on this).”
• James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.