Alaska’s biggest electric utility fired new CEO less than a month after hiring him

Hal Halpern (Chugach Electric Association)

Alaska’s largest electric utility fired its CEO less than a month after he got the job, according to court documents filed in what is now an employment dispute.

In March, Chugach Electric Association heralded its hiring of Hal Halpern as its new top executive. But by early April, Chugach had announced its board of directors was “not moving forward with employing” Halpern.

According to a document Chugach’s lawyers filed in federal court Wednesday, the company’s board terminated its employment agreement with Halpern “for cause” a little more than three weeks after both sides signed it.

In an interview Friday after the initial publication of this story, Halpern’s lawyer said he planned to sue Chugach for age discrimination but declined to elaborate on that claim.

Halpern is 62, and it would be illegal to deny someone employment because of their age. But his lawyer, Clayton Halunen, said Chugach gave his client a different reason for the firing.

“They claimed that he embellished certain information in his background,” Halunen said. “It’s not true at all.”

Halpern’s employment agreement is attached to Chugach’s court filing and defines “for cause” termination. It says such termination would be for things like generally failing to perform executive duties or failing to comply with directives from Chugach’s board of directors, up to criminal, unethical or inappropriate behavior.

The employment agreement also lists Halpern’s annual salary as $499,000, with a bonus up to about $125,000 a year, along with one-time moving expenses up to $88,000.

Halpern would’ve been moving to Alaska from Minnesota, where he had been the CEO of Cooperative Light & Power for three years.

The employment agreement says if Halpern were fired for cause, he would only get whatever pay had accrued up to that point. If he were fired without cause during a probationary period of three months, Halpern would get substantially more, including six months of separation pay.

But Halunen, Halpern’s lawyer, said he planned to prove the probationary period should not have been included in the agreement at all. He said Halpern would be seeking an entire year of separation pay.

Chugach’s court filing Wednesday notes that Halpern disputed his termination and says he sent a letter to Chugach threatening to sue in Minnesota. Chugach’s lawyers are asking a judge to issue an order saying the case has to be arbitrated in Alaska.

Halunen said he wants the arbitration to happen in Minnesota.

Halunen added that Halpern is now out of a job, because he had resigned from his previous position to work for Chugach.

“He was very much looking forward to coming to Anchorage, and now he has nothing,” Halunen said. “And at his age, it’s unlikely that he’s going to be able to find another job as a CEO for another large utility, and it’s really a sad and unfortunate story what they did to him.”

Chugach’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson for the electric utility declined to comment.

Chugach employs about 460 people and provides power to more than 90,000 customers in Anchorage and the northern Kenai Peninsula.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Halpern’s separation pay for a “without cause” firing would be 12 months pay. Because he would’ve still been in a three-month probationary period, according to the employment agreement, he would only get six months of separation pay.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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