Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz delivers a COVID-19 community briefing on July 17, 2020 at City Hall. Berkowitz on Tuesday announced that he would resign, effective Oct. 23. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)
Berkowitz, who is married, announced his resignation in a statement read by his chief of staff, Jason Bockenstedt:
“It is with profound sadness and humility that I resign as Mayor of the Municipality of Anchorage. My resignation results from unacceptable personal conduct that has compromised my ability to perform my duties with the focus and trust that is required. I know my conduct has done great injury to my family, my staff, to Municipal employees, and to the people of our community, and for that, I am deeply sorry. To make this transition as smooth as possible, my resignation will be effective Friday, October 23 at 6 p.m.”
As the statement was read, a crowd in the Assembly chambers erupted into cheers until Assembly chair Felix Rivera told them to stop.
According to the city’s charter, the Assembly chair will take over as acting mayor until a special election is held.
However, the Assembly can vote to reorganize the Assembly and choose a new chair before the mayor’s resignation goes into effect in 10 days.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Assemblywoman Jamie Allard made a motion to reorganize, but the motion failed 8-3.
Berkowitz, an attorney and former Democratic state legislator, was elected mayor in 2015 and re-elected three years later. His term was to be up next year. In recent months, he came under fire from people opposed to a series of emergency orders aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
The rapid downfall of the state’s top elected Democrat began on Friday, just after noon, when Maureen “Maria” Athens, an anchor/reporter for stations KTBY and KYUR, posted unsubstantiated allegations against Berkowitz on social media, accusing him of posting inappropriate photos on an “underage girl’s website.”
The subsequent chain of events included criminal investigations, a death threat against the mayor and his wife, criminal charges against Athens, revelation of the mayor’s relationship with her and a city government thrust into uncertainty and controversy as the community remains sharply divided on how to deal with the pandemic at a time when the city has seen a continued surge in new COVID-19 cases.
City manager Bill Falsey, who is running for mayor, told the Assembly on Tuesday that top administration officials put up a “firewall” between the administration and the Anchorage Police Department, which investigated allegations that — if true — would have constituted a criminal act.
The Anchorage Police Department and FBI have said they found no evidence that the allegations about Berkowitz were true.
On Monday, Berkowitz admitted to the inappropriate relationship. Top staff members independently decided the mayor couldn’t continue in his job, Falsey said.
“Ultimately our team reached the conclusion it would be untenable for the mayor to continue in his role,” he said. Berkowitz agreed, he said.
The mayor had not responded to a detailed list of questions Tuesday, including whether he sent inappropriate messages to any other person, as the news anchor has alleged, and whether Athens is being investigated for potential criminal charges related to a death threat she left on his voicemail.
Athens, in the meantime, spoke to the Daily News about the relationship, which she says began in early 2016.
At 11 p.m. on Monday, the mayor’s office released a threatening voicemail they said Athens sent Berkowitz on Friday.
In the voicemail Athens accuses Berkowitz of pedophilia, says she’s going to “expose” him in a TV story “and win an Emmy.”
“You either kill yourself, turn yourself in or do what you need to do,” she said.
She then threatened to “personally” kill Berkowitz and his wife.
“You Jewish piece of living f–king s–t,” she said on the voicemail. “You have met your match.”
Athens was arrested Friday afternoon on assault, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief charges for a fight that day with her TV station manager, whom she also described as her fiance in a court hearing Saturday.
Athens is so far not facing any charges related to the voicemail threats or for posting what she said was a nude photo of the mayor’s backside on Facebook.
“Clearly it was a death threat and an anti-Semitic death threat, and so how is he supposed to react to that but to say she’s not OK,” said Chris Constant, who represents downtown Anchorage on the Assembly.
In a phone interview Monday, before the city released the recording, a Daily News reporter asked Athens whether she made a death threat to the mayor. At the time, she denied making the threat.
Athens said she and Berkowitz began exchanging messages more than four years ago.
“When he slided into my texts, he was so smooth with his little witty slogans and pictures,” Athens said. They wrote to each other using the communications application WhatsApp, she said.
At the time, she said, she was feeling isolated in Alaska, away from East Coast family.
Between 2017 and 2018, Athens posted photos and video on her professional Twitter and Facebook accounts of at least six on-camera interviews with Berkowitz.
“He gave me attention when I was lonely,” Athens said. She would not say whether the relationship ever became physical.
Athens did not provide copies of the messages and said she deleted them from her phone, which she said is now in the possession of law enforcement.
Athens claimed that she knew of one other woman Berkowitz sent inappropriate messages to. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a series of questions about Athens’ claims, including whether Berkowitz had ever sent similar messages to any other person.
While the nude photo shared by Athens helped to reveal the relationship, Athens has not provided evidence to support her assertion that Berkowitz had conducted some kind of illegal activity involving “underage girls.” On Monday she would not say who or what that accusation was based on, other than sources she would not reveal.
Anchorage police say they have investigated the matter, with the FBI, and found no evidence of a crime. In an email Monday, the FBI Anchorage office said, “The FBI Anchorage Field Office coordinated with the Anchorage Police Department in the early stages of their investigation into allegations made against Mayor Berkowitz, concerning inappropriate photos on an underage website and threatening communications he received. Based on that initial investigation, there was no immediate evidence to support a violation of federal law; however, the FBI Anchorage Field Office continues to monitor the situation.”
Speaking loud and fast, Athens talked about her love for being a reporter and repeatedly made references to being in ill health, saying she had pancreatitis. As she talked, Athens read through an earlier Daily News story about her arrest and disputed elements of the charges.
Athens said she and station manager Scott Centers were driving in a news vehicle on C Street when they pulled into a Midtown parking lot. The charges against her say she punched Centers on the side of his face and hit him with her phone; Athens said Centers was driving recklessly and that she grabbed his arm.
After a friend drove her to the news station and she was taken into custody by police, the charges say Athens “began kicking at the patrol car’s back windows and had to be placed in full restraints.” She said that is not correct.
“I was never in full restraints. They just put me in the police cars because I was cold. I didn’t freak out,” she said.
Athens faces charges of fourth-degree assault, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct. She paid $100 bail, she said, and on Sunday was released from jail.
Outside the Loussac Library on Tuesday evening, Amielle Conant joined a few dozen people who protested against the extension of the mayor’s COVID-19-related emergency authority as the Assembly met inside.
Conant said she was surprised by the mayor’s resignation, but felt it was the right move because of the level of scrutiny Berkowitz would be under if he hadn’t.
“From his apology letter, it didn’t sound like he was going to resign,” Conant said. “It was a big shock to the system.”
Standing nearby, John Cunningham said he gave comment to the Assembly earlier on Tuesday regarding virus-related business restrictions. The mayor made the right call by resigning, he said.
“I feel like that was right thing to do. I don’t agree with most of what he did or stood for, but quite frankly it’s not really good to send any local government into an upheaval like this,” Cunningham said.
“But I think what we saw was sending it into an upheaval already, so that might have been the right thing to do to quell it.”
ADN’s Marc Lester contributed.
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