For likely the first time, the Anchorage Assembly is legally compelling someone’s testimony. This first subpoena is part of the Assembly’s follow-up on how the former head of the city’s Health Department was hired with fabricated professional credentials.
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance subpoenaed the municipality’s Chief Human Resources Officer Niki Tshibaka to testify about his role in the hiring, vetting, investigation and eventual termination of former Health Director Joe Gerace. Tshibaka was ordered to appear Tuesday night at an Assembly meeting in closed session.
This is an extraordinary measure, and it’s not a power the Assembly chair normally has. In a special meeting Monday night, the Assembly unanimously passed a resolution that granted the subpoena power in connection with Gerace.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said it was a difficult but necessary move.
“This is a serious action,” he said. “We’ve had counsel reviewing and couldn’t find any record of this type of action before. Thus, this is an unprecedented action.”
Acting Municipal Attorney Blair Christensen said Monday that the administration asked the Assembly to take the action. Christensen, speaking for the administration, explained why.
“There is the constitutional right to privacy for your personnel records under the Alaska Constitution,” she told the Assembly. “Mr. Gerace in public statements has been, I guess vocal, about … the potential of him suing people for slander or libel or any kind of defamation claims.”
The Assembly has been asking for a briefing from the administration on its internal investigation into Gerace for months. Christensen said using subpoenas would protect the municipality.
Constant said he expected the subpoena power to only be used narrowly and conservatively.
“What’s germane today is the report that details how, what, where and when they investigated the Joe Gerace experience,” Constant said. “And so we’re going to start with that and see where it goes.”
Gerace resigned from the health director post last August as Alaska Public Media and American Public Media were in the process of exposing that he had lied about his education, military and medical background.
On Tuesday night, the Assembly met with Tshibaka for more than two hours in a closed executive session.
Still, when the private meeting wrapped, members like Meg Zaletel said they felt they didn’t learn anything new.
“The reason we went into executive session was there was an expectation that government records that were to be kept confidential would be provided,” she said. “I don’t think that expectation was necessarily met.”
She proposed releasing the tape of the meeting to the public. But attorneys with the municipal law department said Tshibaka’s report is confidential. Assembly counsel Dean Gates said that means it could be legally tricky to release the footage.
“I would not recommend releasing the tapes of our discussion and our consideration of the document until that document is actually released or no longer subject to privilege,” he said.
A majority of Assembly members disagreed, arguing that the information in the document was already public knowledge. The body voted 7 to 4 in favor of releasing the footage.
By late Wednesday afternoon, the tapes had not yet been released.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information from Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting, when members voted to release the tapes of Niki Tshibaka’s testimony.
Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early contributed to this story.