Kenai Peninsula Borough settles Pierce harassment suit for $237K

Charlie Pierce
Charlie Pierce in 2018. (Aaron Bolton/KBBI)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough will pay more than $200,000 to settle a harassment suit filed last fall against former borough mayor Charlie Pierce, according to a statement released Tuesday night on behalf of the borough Assembly and administration.

The announcement comes eight months after Pierce resigned and six months after his former assistant, Pamela Wastell, sued him for repeated sexual harassment, and sued the borough for failing to protect her.

The borough has been tight-lipped about many of the details of the suit. The Assembly voted not to disclose the details of an internal investigation last fall, and met in executive session again last month to talk about it.

But at its meeting this week, the Assembly agreed to make public that it had settled with Wastell for $237,500. The borough will pay $206,250 and Pierce owes $31,250, the statement said.

In a statement sent by her lawyer Tuesday night, Wastell said she was pleased by the settlement, but that “there’s not enough money in the world to go through what I have.”

Pierce’s lawyer, Richard Moses, said Pierce isn’t paying his sum, personally. Rather, he told the borough that his part of the settlement would be covered by the borough’s Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Association policy, according to Sean Kelley, attorney for the borough. That policy includes the borough’s property coverage, work compensation and other liability.

Kelley said the borough was not informed of this until Tuesday night.

“If AMLJIA (Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Association) or anyone else is paying Mr. Pierce’s fees or settlement sum that would be a unilateral decision by them that was not done in agreement or consultation with the Borough,” Kelly said in a follow-up email Wednesday.

A spokesperson from the insurance association did not respond to a request for more information, before airtime. Kelley said the borough is not covering Pierce’s attorney fees.

Mayor Peter Micciche — who voters picked to fill Pierce’s spot in a special election in February — said the borough’s portion of the settlement will come from its Insurance and Litigation fund, which he said contains an “adequate balance” to cover the cost. There was over $2.7 million in that fund in the 2023 fiscal year.

Neither the borough nor Pierce is admitting wrongdoing, according to the respective parties.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Wastell in Kenai Superior Court last October, 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. It also said he had intimidated other female employees, and that the borough didn’t have the reporting mechanisms in place to protect any of them.

In a prepared statement sent Tuesday night, Wastell’s attorney, Caitlin Shortell said the alleged harassment was devastating and ruined her plans to retire.

Wastell, in the same statement, said she did not feel safe reporting the harassment at the time since the acting human resources director at the time was Pierce’s chief of staff, Aaron Rhoades.

In its own statement, the borough said the Assembly and current mayor decided to settle the suit without further litigation to avoid spending “more public funds” and “bring finality to a difficult time.”

“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 said.

Moses, Pierce’s lawyer, says Pierce is happy to put the suit behind him.

Pierce was elected as borough mayor in 2017. He resigned last August, citing his then-bid for Alaska governor. The borough later said Pierce was asked to consider submitting a voluntary resignation as part of a potential resolution, to help the borough avoid a lawsuit.

The borough previously settled with two former human resources directors over bullying and discrimination complaints involving Pierce, in 2019 and 2021, totaling $267,000 in costs to the borough. With this settlement, the borough will be paying nearly half a million dollars settling lawsuits involving Pierce.

Separately, an ongoing suit against the borough, filed in January, alleged harassment and retaliation from another borough employee with the Kachemak Emergency Services Fire Area.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Micciche said the borough was adopting a new sexual harassment and discrimination policy so borough employees will know how to report incidences of assault, and what the consequences are.

Micciche said the new policy went “live” Monday morning and that it applies to anyone who may be in the borough building and working on the borough’s behalf. The policy, emailed to borough employees yesterday, elaborates on several ways to report harassment, including through the borough’s new online reporting tool, or directly to a supervisor, the mayor, the human resources director or the borough attorney. Micciche also said he’ll establish a three-person, mixed-gender reporting panel of borough directors that will field complaints.

Shortell, the lawyer for Wastell, said change for other employees was very important to her client.

“And she’s very happy to see that the borough is adopting new policies,” she said. “I would just add a caution that a policy on paper is only as good as the people who implement the policy.”

She said it will be up to the borough to make sure the policy is not just words on a page.

This story was updated Thursday with more information from all parties’ lawyers.

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