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Former employee sues Charlie Pierce, Kenai Peninsula Borough over sexual harassment

Aaron Bolton
/
KBBI
Charlie Pierce was mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough from 2017 until this fall, when he resigned.

A former Kenai Peninsula Borough employee said she faced repeated sexual harassment from former borough mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Charlie Pierce while she was his assistant.

She’s now suing Pierce and the borough, and her 20-page lawsuit details an alleged pattern of harassment by Pierce that she said the borough did not stop.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in state Superior Court, Kenai resident Pamela Wastell said she endured a hostile work environment and “constant” sexual harassment for the year and a half she was Pierce’s executive assistant at the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Wastell started working at the borough in 2013.

Pierce was elected as borough mayor in 2017 and announced his resignation in August, saying he needed to focus on his bid for governor.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Anchorage Daily News, said Pierce would touch and kiss Wastell against her will and that he made sexual remarks, using his authority to intimidate her behind closed doors in his Soldotna office.

“From January through June of 2022, Pierce subjected Wastell to increasingly frequent incidents of sexual harassment including: sexual remarks, embraces, kissing, 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 lawsuit said. “This conduct began happening several times per week and increased in frequency until the sexual harassment was constant.”

The lawsuit also alleges the borough failed to protect Wastell and several other employees from Pierce’s harassment. It does not name a dollar amount Wastell is seeking in damages.

Caitlin Shortell is Wastell’s Anchorage-based attorney. She said her client was afraid to report the behavior to the borough before this summer for fear of retaliation.

“Knowing that, while she remained in the workplace, there was no safe, impartial place or person and there were no procedures in place,” Shortell said.

Wastell first reported Pierce’s inappropriate behavior to the borough’s legal department in July, according to the lawsuit.

In the days following, she was placed on paid administrative leave. The borough hired an outside firm to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations, which it later concluded were “credible.” Pierce resigned in late August and left the borough at the end of September.

And the lawsuit claims Wastell wasn’t the only victim of Pierce’s harassment.

The suit points to a handful of other alleged instances of sexual harassment and discrimination by Pierce, including two settlements paid by the borough totaling nearly $270,000 from two former human resources directors in 2019 and 2021.

It also alleges additional instances of sexual harassment against two female borough employees. In one case, the lawsuit said, the employee reported harassment to the borough attorney and borough assembly.

Shortell said the borough failed those employees because it did not have a clear and safe reporting mechanism.

“And what that meant is that there were victims who weren’t protected,” she said. “And Ms. Wastell was one of those victims.”

The borough’s Bullying, Harassment, Discrimination and Retaliation Prevention Policy said employees making complaints should bring them to the attention of their supervisor, the head of their department or the human resources director. The matter should then be referred to the human resources director, or, if the complaint is against the director, to the borough attorney.

The acting human resources director at the time of Wastell’s complaint was Pierce’s chief of staff, Aaron Rhoades, who left the borough at the end of September following Pierce’s resignation.

Anchorage attorney Richard Moses, representing Pierce, declined to comment on the case. Borough Attorney Sean Kelley said Monday afternoon he had not yet been served the suit and therefore would not comment.

The lawsuit said the borough asked Wastell to come back to work or that it might terminate her employment. Shortell said Wastell has not returned to work there because the borough has not put into place procedures to protect her from harassment or retaliation and because she’s suffered emotional distress.

Meanwhile, Pierce, a Republican, continues his run to be Alaska’s governor. Last week, he appeared on stage among several other statewide Republican candidatesat a “Get Out the Vote” rally, in Soldotna and attended two guberantorial debates, last Wednesday and Saturday. Pierce received 6.7% in the August primary election, making the cut as the fourth candidate in the four-candidate Nov. 8 ranked-choice general election.

Current Gov. Mike Dunleavy has encouraged his supporters to rank Pierce second on their ballots. In an emailed response late Monday to questions about whether he would continue to do so, a spokesperson for Dunleavy said the allegations are serious and that, "without any way to independently verify these claims at this late date, it would be unfair to make any snap judgements or draw any conclusions from a complaint filed just days ago."

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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