Assembly launches investigation following fabricated resume report by Anchorage Department of Health chief
Anchorage Assembly begins investigation into hiring of health department director who fabricated credentials and work history on resume, examines whether it can independently vet executives superiors appointed by the mayor.
“First, what happened? How were this person’s forged credentials presented to the Assembly? Assembly leadership intends to engage in an investigation,” Speaker Suzanne LaFrance said during a committee meeting on Thursday.
His investigation follows Mayor Dave Bronson’s announcement Tuesday that his administration is investigating the city’s hiring practices.
Anchorage Health Department Director Joe Gerace resigned on Monday. The mayor’s office announced his departure just hours before the publication of a public media investigation that revealed Gerace had falsely claimed to have two master’s degrees and misrepresented himself as a high-ranking police officer. Alaska National Guard, among other distortions and lies.
Assembly leadership and most Assembly members are suspicious of the administration’s investigation, saying it is inappropriate for the administration and the Human Resources Department to investigate its own failure to check the credentials of the person named by Bronson.
Even Assembly members allied with Bronson ask what can be done to fix the issues that allowed the mayor to place Gerace in a position of power.
“What are our options to do further checks, if we have to or if the administration should temporarily hire an outside company to take over the check, until we know what the problem is? Or do we just keep using the same failed system until we find out what’s wrong? said member Kevin Cross during Tuesday’s meeting.
Assembly leadership has sought legal advice on the extent of its powers and duties in the process of confirming executive nominations, such as whether it can independently check the credentials of mayoral nominees , said LaFrance. Many questions surround the city’s code governing executive appointments, she said.
The Assembly had voted to confirm Gerace as director in November, on a 7-3 vote.
In addition, the Assembly will prioritize an investigation into the impacts of Gerace’s tenure at the Department of Health, she said.
“The Ministry of Health is particularly important for matters of public safety. We have seen the loss of employees. We know HUD funds weren’t requested,” LaFrance said, referring to a botched funding process for a homeless housing project. “We had a director of the health department who was comfortable submitting fraudulent documents to the municipality. What documents did he sign? What disciplinary actions has he taken? What grants were administered? What contracts did he perform?
Exactly how the Assembly proceeds will likely depend on the legal options identified by the Assembly’s lawyers.
But the leadership of the Assembly plans to instruct the Audit Committee to work to determine the extent of possible impacts on the municipality, and will likely work with the municipal auditor to review Gerace’s actions and work as department head, Assembly leaders said.
City Manager Amy Demboski told members Tuesday that the administration’s review had already identified shortcomings in long-standing traditional hiring practices. The city will now require documents such as proof of degrees, certifications and work history, she said.
The mayor’s office did not respond to questions from the Daily News about who in the administration conducted the hiring process, interviews and any reference checks for Gerace. He did not respond to a question about who in his human resources department is leading the investigation into hiring practices, or whether the findings will be made public. He did not respond to a request for a job description or qualification requirements for the position of director of the health department or any documentation of the policies and processes underlying the selection of appointed senior executives.
Assemblyman Felix Rivera said he was “not at all convinced by the defense” the administration has given the public so far about how Gerace ended up with the job.
Members of the public leveled multiple accusations against Gerace last year as the Assembly considered his appointment. The complaints came largely from former colleagues and employees he had supervised at previous workplaces. The charges related to his behavior in the workplace and included allegations of sexism towards female employees, as well as concerns about qualifications and safety. The Bronson administration at the time called the accusations false and attempted libel.
“I want to know if HR did anything to investigate these allegations, or if on their face they dismissed them as a witch hunt or an assassination,” Rivera said. He was one of three members who voted against confirming Gerace.
Rivera said he also wanted to speak with former city human resources directors about hiring practices and how they handled senior executive appointments.
However, the Assembly’s investigation is complicated by laws outlining the function and balance of powers of city government.
Anchorage has a strong mayoral form of government, and the mayor has fairly broad powers to make executive appointments. These high-level positions serve at the pleasure of the mayor.
The Assembly acts as a check on this power, voting on whether or not to confirm the appointment of a mayor to office. Before voting, the Assembly reviews comments and public testimony about mayoral nominations and often holds confirmation hearings to ask questions of those nominated.
But the Assembly relies heavily on information presented by the city’s human resources department, which is part of the mayor’s administration, to make decisions. Under the current process, the onus is on the administration to perform due diligence, background and reference checks.
According a section of the city codethey are not subject to the normal recruitment and selection procedures for other city jobs:
“The mayor or appointing authority may use all recruitment and referral sources and techniques deemed appropriate to obtain the most qualified employees for such positions and may appoint one who is determined to best perform the functions of a managerial position at the discretion of the mayor or appointing authority subject to the merit provisions of the Charter and this Code Before a manager is hired, the “individual must have submitted a municipal employment application form including a resume outlining relevant education, training and experience,” the code states.
At Thursday’s Rules Committee meeting, Forrest Dunbar, Assemblyman, said he wanted to know if the City Auditor could also look into “how it happened”.
“If not, do we have to hire an outside attorney or some other type of third-party investigator to do this?” said Dunbar. “I think there has been a failure of HR services here. And having the HR department investigate itself doesn’t seem very effective to me. I don’t think it will hold water for much of the audience. So I’m looking for another way to do it.
Assembly Deputy Speaker Chris Constant said management was discussing whether the Assembly could hire a third party to help review upcoming executive appointments.
Assemblyman Cross, who took office after Gerace was hired, placed some responsibility on the Assembly for Gerace’s hiring and asked if they could set a higher standard than demanding only the basic administration resume.
“Are we checking who else should we tell about this candidate?” And because it seems to me that with a few simple questions and a survey, we could have learned a little bit more about this particular circumstance,” Cross said. “What does the reference check process look like? ‘Cause it seems like… it failed miserably.
LaFrance said a lawyer for the Assembly was looking into whether he could do things typically done by HR, like a background check. Dunbar noted that the Assembly does not have the resources or staff that a human resources department has, and receives and reviews a deluge of executive appointments after a new mayor takes office.
Assemblyman Kameron Perez-Verdia called for all of Bronson’s nominations to be reviewed again and said he believed an independent investigation should be conducted to find out what happened and what processes had been used – or not.
“I think where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he said. “…This is a clear indication that there is a breakdown in the system and that we may very well have other people working for us who are completely unqualified for the position in which they find themselves. And so I really want us to take this very seriously.