ANCHORAGE - Alaska's new Public Safety Department commissioner said Tuesday he has been unfairly accused of sexual harassment and that his accuser three years ago was a longtime acquaintance with whom he had a friendship outside the office.
Chuck Kopp said the accusation by the employee he supervised as police chief and acting city manager in Kenai took him by surprise. He was reprimanded for hugging her several times, he said, and on one occasion, when she was experiencing neck pain, applying direct pressure to her neck with his thumbs.
However, he appealed that reprimand and it was pulled from his personnel file two years after the 2005 incidents, he said.
"My record is clean," he said at a press conference. "The whole intent of the appeal is that I did not want a mark on my record."
Kopp appeared Tuesday with Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, who would not comment on personnel matters but did not dispute Kopp's account. City officials were sorry to see Kopp leave their employ, she said. She has known Kopp for 19 years, since he was hired as a patrol officer.
"He's a gentleman, truly a gentleman, who operates with a lot of integrity, and I think that the state will be very pleased with him," she said.
Kopp was hired July 14, replacing former Commissioner Walt Monegan, who was fired unexpectedly three days before. Gov. Sarah Palin said she reviewed the Kenai complaint and had full confidence in Kopp.
Kopp began his prepared remarks by defining harassment as a demand for sexual favors or creating a hostile work environment designed to drive an employee away.
"I did not do either of those things and I never have," he said.
He gave this account of the incidents leading up to a formal complaint in September 2005:
He and his accuser were acquainted since high school, when they attended different high schools on the Kenai Peninsula.
The woman worked as a dispatcher in the police department for several years in the 1990s and then took a few years off. During that time, she visited the office six to eight times.
"She was a friend outside work for my wife and I," Kopp said.
They would talk about the department, and later, she asked about job openings. Her usual greeting in the police department lobby was a hug, he said. The woman sent him cards for his birthday and even gave him a present, a cookbook, "Boy Meets Grill," by Bobby Flay.
In April 2005, the woman took a city job. Kopp continued to regard her as a friend, he said. In July that year, she drove to his house when she was having trouble ridding herself of an aggressive car salesman. He and his wife attended a recital for the woman's daughter. She also attended a social function at his home.
"In those social settings, it was normal for her to greet me or say goodbye with a hug, nothing other than that, a friend-to-friend hug," he said, actions she initiated at least half the time.
On another occasion, he heard moaning from her office and observed her "locked up" with neck pain, he said. He offered to fetch her a pain reliever, then asked if she wanted him to apply pressure to her neck. He did so with his thumbs "for a few seconds," he said.
The sexual harassment claim in September 2005 came as a surprise, he said. The unnamed woman claimed he kissed her on the cheek, which she says was witnessed by an officer.
"I did not kiss her. I never sought or requested an intimate relationship with her. I never sought to make her uncomfortable in her job."
A city attorney investigated and the woman was reassigned to another supervisor.
"This is a standard human resource response in a case like this where an accusation is made," Kopp said. "It protects all parties involved. It's not a finding of fact."
He cooperated, was told any contact with an employee was inappropriate, and was given a letter of reprimand. He appealed and the Kenai City Council agreed to remove the letter from his personnel file after two years if there were no more incidents.
The reprimand has been removed, he said.
"The 2005 investigation was a learning experience for me," Kopp said. "I learned the importance of keeping personal friendships separate from work relationships."
He does not know the motive of the woman in revisiting the complaint, he said.