Female Denali Commission employees file discrimination complaints against boss

Jason Hoke has been the top executive at the Denali Commission since April 2019. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

At least four female employees have filed civil rights complaints against the top executive at the Denali Commission, according to an Anchorage lawyer.

Federal Co-Chair Jason Hoke, who took the job in late April, has been absent from work since Friday. 

Attorney Matt Singer said Hoke’s mistreatment of employees began at his first staff meeting, when Hoke shared a Serbian quote that Hoke translated as: “Whether women are laughing or crying, they’re always lying.”

“That sort of speech and that kind of attitude just have no place in any workplace, and certainly not at the Denali Commission,” Singer said. “His conduct only got worse from there, and so several employees raised complaints internally with the Department of Commerce and the civil rights process.”

Singer represents two women who’ve filed federal employment complaints alleging a hostile work environment, discrimination and harassment. Singer said he knows of two other complaints.

His clients do not want to be named, and their complaints are not public record. 

However, Alaska Public Media has obtained a document in the case, part of Hoke’s response to the allegations. Among the claims, it says Hoke told staffers he didn’t care about federal regulations and could get rid of any employee he wanted. 

Hoke’s appointment was a departure for the commission. The previous co-chairs were buttoned-down types with a background of federal service.

Hoke is an extroverted New Yorker who claims to thrive on coffee and cigarettes.

“I first came to Alaska in 1996, as a teacher in a small, one-room schoolhouse,” Hoke said in an interview with Alaska Public Media last summer.

Denali Commission executive Jason Hoke (center, in plaid) gets a briefing in St. Mary’s in August 2019. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

He said the experience in Chistochina taught him a lot about the infrastructure needs of rural Alaska, and that some villagers were still using honey buckets and oil lamps.

“I remember calling my mom and dad in New York and explaining that to them, and they didn’t believe me,” Hoke said. “‘Not in America. C’mon. People don’t live like that in America.'”

Hoke did not return a voicemail message left on his cell phone this week. A family member called back and asked that he be left alone.

The Denali Commission, established by the late Sen. Ted Stevens, is modeled after the Appalachian Regional Commission. It has an annual budget of more than $15 million, which it distributes to improve infrastructure in rural Alaska. Hoke was appointed by the U.S. Commerce Secretary, and the Commerce Department oversees his position.

In his response to some of the allegations, Hoke wrote that he has never made sexist or ageist comments. He also said his Balkan adage about women being liars was not directed at anyone. Hoke said he merely shared some foreign language phrases he learned from Albanian and Croatian friends back in New York after one of the Denali Commission employees identified herself as Albanian.

Denali Commission Chief Operating Officer Chad Stovall said Monday that Hoke is still the federal co-chair but has been out of the office since Friday. Stovall said Hoke is working from home for personal reasons.