The Alaska commission that investigates discrimination has been sued for alleged discrimination

Marilyn Stewart in a 2018 campaign photo when she was running for House District 21. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

The former executive director of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, which investigates complaints of discrimination, says she herself was fired after less than a month on the job as the result of discrimination.

That’s according to Marilyn Stewart’s lawsuit against the commission, filed Thursday. Stewart alleges that — because she is Black, a woman and a military veteran — two former commissioners convinced others to vote to terminate her employment in 2019.

Stewart’s firing by the commission was “in violation of some of the very laws it exists to enforce,” the lawsuit says.

The Human Rights Commission was established under state law to investigate reports of discrimination and find remedies. Commissioners are appointed by the governor, and the commission reports directly to the governor’s office.

Stewart had worked as director of Anchorage’s Office of Equal Opportunity and ran as a Republican for a state House seat in 2018. She didn’t win but briefly went to work in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office before she was hired as the Human Rights Commission’s director.

According to her lawsuit, Stewart’s trouble with the commission began almost immediately. She started July 1, 2019, and the lawsuit says she soon learned her pay was significantly less than that of her predecessor, a white woman.

In her third day on the job, according to the lawsuit, Stewart reached out to the state Department of Administration about the difference.

“Ms. Stewart was concerned about this pay discrepancy, particularly in light of ASCHR’s mission to prevent discriminatory treatment,” the lawsuit says.

What followed, according to the lawsuit, was a tense meeting with the commissioners about two weeks later.

Stewart claims in the lawsuit that the then-commission chair called her “incompetent” during the meeting and said she wasn’t qualified to be the commission’s director. The lawsuit also claims the former chairperson, who is Alaska Native, said at the meeting that an Alaska Native person would be better qualified for the job and that if Stewart worked for an Alaska Native corporation, she would’ve already been fired.

According to the lawsuit, the commission chair was upset that Stewart had “gone around” the commission to discuss her pay with the Department of Administration.

After the meeting, Stewart complained to Dunleavy’s office, but a deputy chief of staff told her the governor’s office wanted her to try to continue working with her, the lawsuit says.

At another meeting about a week later, the commission voted 4-3 to fire Stewart. The lawsuit alleges the chairperson and another commissioner convinced two others to vote for the termination.

According to the lawsuit, the chairperson made statements about preferring to work with men and Alaska Native people and that the other commissioner opposed to Stewart disliked Stewart because of her past military service.

Stewart’s lawsuit is asking to have her reinstated as the commission’s executive director, as well as compensatory damages for pay she says she would’ve gotten if she hadn’t been fired and punitive damages to punish the commission.

Through her attorney, Stewart declined to comment on the suit. The State Commission for Human Rights referred questions to the Department of Law, whose spokeswoman, Patty Sullivan, responded by email.

“We do not think it’s appropriate to get into specific allegations,” Sullivan wrote, adding that the allegations would be addressed in court.

Attempts to reach the former commission chair were unsuccessful.

Stewart’s lawsuit is the continuation of a tumultuous several years for the commission. The director before her, Marti Buscaglia, left the job due to a different racially-charged incident.

Months before Stewart was hired, Buscaglia had posted a photo of a pickup in the commission’s parking garage with a “black rifles matter” sticker to the commission’s Facebook page, asking, “In what world is this OK?”

The Facebook post generated controversy, and Dunleavy ordered an investigation. The commission voted to suspend Buscaglia without pay for two weeks, but she resigned a few days after the vote.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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