From Mayor Bronson's first day in office, a domestic violence case loomed over Anchorage City Hall

Jan. 15—On the summer afternoon that Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson celebrated his inauguration, July 1, 2021, one of his top city staff members saw a familiar face in the crowd — the man accused in multiple court cases of domestic violence and of stalking her.

Among the food trucks and bouncy houses dotting the Delaney Park Strip stood the defendant, Brandon Spoerhase. He was under a court order to stay away from Kolby Hickel, the victim in the cases. Hickel was Bronson's newly hired director of enterprise services.

The conditions of Spoerhase's bail release required him to leave. But the 40-year-old real estate broker is also partners in a commercial real estate business with one of the mayor's most trusted advisers, Larry Baker.

Baker had just served as co-chair of the mayor's transition team and was starting a new job working on contract as policy adviser to the mayor.

"(Spoerhase) saw me, smirked, looked over at me, stood around for a few minutes and then engaged in conversation with Larry Baker," Hickel wrote that night in an email to the Office of Victims' Rights. It was her first day on the job.

"My name was in the paper and online in multiple news outlets. He knew I would be there supporting my boss," she wrote. (A friend of Hickel's asked Spoerhase to leave and he eventually did, she wrote, and no charges were filed as a result of that particular encounter.)

Even on the day of triumph for the new administration, ruptures over the open court cases against Spoerhase were already forming among Bronson's senior staff.

The matter burst into public view Wednesday when former city manager Amy Demboski delivered to city leaders an 11-page letter accusing Bronson of firing her in retaliation for "attempting to convince (Bronson) to cease unlawful and unethical activities using municipal resources."

Among the most serious accusations levied by Demboski: That Baker tried to prevent Hickel from being hired to work at City Hall, and twice used his influence to try to get then-municipal attorney Patrick Bergt to drop or reduce the criminal charges against Spoerhase.

"Mr. Baker, with your support and blessing, attempted to influence a criminal prosecution to assist his friend and business partner," the letter said.

[Fired Anchorage city manager accuses Bronson administration of illegal, unethical behavior]

In the days before her firing, Demboski had also made the accusation in a December email to Anchorage's ombudsman. Daily News reporters viewed the email and obtained an excerpt.

"Mr. Baker also attempted to influence the mayor and me to not hire Kolby Hickel, who was the victim of stalking and domestic violence at the hands of his business partner," Demboski wrote in the earlier letter to the ombudsman. "When that didn't work, he went to the municipal attorney Bergt (both during the transition and during the term) to get the charges against his business partner dismissed."

All told, Spoerhase was charged in three separate city misdemeanor cases and one state felony stalking case. All involved domestic violence and all named Hickel as the victim. (In Anchorage, felony charges are generally filed by state prosecutors while city prosecutors — working under the city attorney — file misdemeanors.)

One of the city cases has been dismissed entirely. The city prosecutors and Spoerhase made an agreement to resolve the two other city cases with Spoerhase pleading no contest to criminal mischief and violating a protective order. Prosecutors agreed to drop four other charges: Counts of violating conditions of release, unlawful contact, stalking and misdemeanor assault.

The felony case, which is being prosecuted by the state, is awaiting trial.

In interviews with the Daily News, current and former City Hall employees said Bronson was well aware of the criminal charges against Spoerhase at the time Hickel was hired. Bronson could be heard speaking openly about the cases at City Hall, employees said.

The employees said Bronson said he knew he might one day have to "choose" between Spoerhase, his adviser's business partner, and Hickel, a high-level city employee. Tension over the situation began to suffuse City Hall, as some senior officials viewed the criminal cases against Spoerhase, and Hickel's employment there, as a potential embarrassment for the mayor.

Yet Spoerhase was appointed, with Bronson's awareness, to a city committee in the fall of 2021. In fact, Spoerhase remained on the Anchorage Community Development Authority advisory committee until the Daily News began asking questions about the selection on Tuesday.

Hickel is currently the city's deputy municipal manager. She moved from her initial role and began working under Demboski early into the mayor's term. Hickel oversees the city's utilities and some major projects, including the $1.85 billion Port of Alaska modernization project.

Hickel, Spoerhase and his current attorney, Michael Branson, all declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing felony case against Spoerhase.

Baker and Bronson declined interview requests. They did not answer emailed questions.

Former municipal attorney Bergt also declined to comment, citing concerns that he could break legal rules protecting confidential communications between attorneys and clients.

The city's acting municipal attorney, Blair Christensen, declined to answer emailed questions about whether she had been approached by Baker or others about the Spoerhase cases.

'Expressed shock and discomfort'

Spoerhase is not allowed on the eighth floor of City Hall, where the mayor's offices are, so long as Hickel works there. He can't have any contact with Hickel or her child, and he can't go into other parts of City Hall without an appointment scheduled in advance, according to his conditions of release.

Baker has served as a court-appointed third-party custodian for Spoerhase in the cases. In one instance, Baker paid Spoerhase's $200 bail using the name "Larry Willis."

Demboski, in her email to the ombudsman, said that when municipal attorney Bergt came to her, he "expressed shock and discomfort," and she said that she believes he did not influence the case.

"But Patrick did express that he received another communication from Spoerhase's attorney in which he said, 'Larry told me to reach out to you.' Which Patrick expressed to me made him very uncomfortable," Demboski wrote to the ombudsman. "It was clear to me that Patrick felt as though Larry was attempting to have the muni attorney influence the case and get the charges against Spoerhase dismissed."

A Jan. 6 public records request for emails to or from Bergt about the cases has not yet been filled by the city's Department of Law.

Spoerhase's attorney, Branson, declined to comment. Another defense attorney for Spoerhase, Kevin Fitzgerald, said he never directed Baker to reach out to city attorneys and never contacted the city attorney on Baker's suggestion.

"Certainly, Brandon has a relationship with Larry and whatever happened at that end would be completely unconnected to what it is that I was doing," Fitzgerald said. "Larry's got his own standards to kind of conduct himself by."

"What I can tell you unequivocally is — that didn't come out of my office. It didn't come from me," Fitzgerald said.

Attempts to reach municipal prosecuting attorneys involved in the case were unsuccessful.

Who is Larry Baker?

At one point, Spoerhase's conditions of release required him to live with Baker. As close friends and business partners, they are financially intertwined.

Baker, 80, opened the first Burger King franchise in the state in 1975. He won a seat on the Anchorage Assembly eight years later, served a term in the state Legislature and retired as owner of several Burger King franchises in 2003, the year his company Northwest Restaurants Inc. filed for bankruptcy.

In 2009 Baker began working as chief of staff for then-Mayor Dan Sullivan. Sullivan appointed Spoerhase to the city planning and zoning commission in 2014.

In the private sector, Baker and Spoerhase in 2015 created three companies named BSI, for Baker Spoerhase Investments. All shared the same address, but with a different mix of purposes and ownership split between them:

—BSI Commercial Real Estate LLC, owned by Spoerhase, the licensed broker.

—BSI Consulting LLC, owned by Baker, the well-connected politico. It is this company that Baker uses to contract with the city as an adviser to the mayor.

—BSI Property Management LLC, which the two men own together 50-50.

[Citing 'extremely shocking' allegations in Demboski letter, Anchorage Assembly examining next steps]

In the summer of 2019, two years before Bronson took office, Hickel accused Spoerhase of domestic violence in a request for a long-term protective order filed in Anchorage court.

(Spoerhase had previously been the subject of a domestic violence protective order request by a different woman in 2010, involving accusations of harassing phone calls and stalking, but court records show that request was not granted and no charges were filed.)

The city criminal charges focused on an incident at Hickel's home on the night of June 7, 2019.

They had been downtown together that evening, and Spoerhase began "verbally abusing" Hickel in a cab on the way home, she said when testifying at a hearing on the long-term restraining order.

That night, Hickel awoke from sleep to Spoerhase hitting her in the face with a "piece of processed game beef stick," according to a probable cause statement for charges of misdemeanor assault and criminal mischief filed in the case.

When she left to go to another room, upset, Spoerhase "grabbed her wrist and tried to stop her from walking away," the criminal charges said.

In her application for a protective order, Hickel wrote: "I woke up to the stinging on my face, jumped out of bed and ran into my daughter's room. He followed me and attempted to lay next to me. As I tried to leave we had a struggle because he was holding my wrists. I became free and ran into my bedroom and locked the door."

"He said, 'I'm going to kick it in' and he did," Hickel later testified at a hearing on the long-term restraining order request. "He broke the door and the hardware. And the inside of the door frame."

A judge granted Hickel the long-term protective order on July 19, 2019. Spoerhase was charged with violating that order six days later.

Hickel told police he followed her while she was driving her child to school. He drove a white truck with a "BSI" license plate and held a printed sign with a message to Hickel out of its window.

In the state case, police arrested Spoerhase on a warrant for violating the protective order again on July 30, 2019.

Police arrested him for another alleged violation in August 2019. Following that arrest, Larry Baker paid his $200 bail.

Baker used an alias, Larry Willis, according to the receipt filed in state court. He later acknowledged using this name when paying the bail when questioned about the receipt at a bail hearing, although he said Willis is his middle name and disputed that it was an alias.

At the same Dec. 24, 2019, bail hearing in the state felony case, Hickel testified that Baker is the owner of the truck she says Spoerhase used to allegedly stalk her — a white truck with "BSI" plates — and that Baker "loves Brandon like a son."

Baker seemed like a good guy, Hickel testified. But if Spoerhase were violating the conditions of his release, she said, "I don't believe he would pick up the phone and call the police on Brandon."

Superior Court Judge Kevin Saxby approved Baker as a third-party custodian over these objections. "Of all the people that have come before me over the years to be approved as a third party custodian, he's certainly in the top tier of people who appear to be very responsible."

(Spoerhase wrote occasional columns about commercial real estate for the Daily News in 2018 and 2019. The Daily News discontinued its relationship with him after the criminal charges were filed against him in the summer of 2019.)

Golden Lion

Baker's most public role under the Bronson administration has been as one of the mayor's three representatives in previous negotiations with the Assembly on the city's homelessness plans.

In August 2020, the Assembly voted to buy the Golden Lion hotel as part of a proposal that became a flashpoint in the debate over where to treat and house people experiencing homelessness in Anchorage.

Baker lives 1,750 feet from the Golden Lion. For decades, he has listed the same Geneva Woods home as his primary residence.

Shortly after the city bought the hotel, Baker and others formed a nonprofit called Alaskans For Real Cures to Homelessness. Michael Savitt, whom Bronson later appointed to be the city's chief medical officer, was listed as president.

Bronson's successful campaign for mayor grew, in part, out of a wave of community opposition to the Golden Lion purchase and the previous mayor's plan to turn it into a substance abuse treatment facility. On the campaign trail, Bronson vowed to sell the building.

When voters elected Bronson in 2021, Baker led the mayoral transition team alongside former Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell.

[Assembly members question whether city is violating law by paying road service contractors for snow removal in Anchorage Bowl]

The city's former real estate director, Christina Hendrickson, claimed in an Oct. 11 email to Assembly members that Baker blocked plans to place a treatment center in the city-owned hotel. Hendrickson filed a lawsuit against the city alleging she was fired for whistleblower complaints, and is now awaiting trial.

"I feel affirmation and a lot of, 'I told you so,' " Hendrickson said Thursday, in reaction to Demboski's letter. The former city manager's allegations, she said, "With the exception of the penis cookies, were the same types of things that I had called out in my letters and my firsthand witness accounts."

(Demboski asserts that no action was taken when a senior member of the mayor's leadership team distributed penis-shaped cookies at City Hall, in contrast to a narrative — which she accused Bronson of fostering — that she had been fired for profane name-calling.)

In a reversal of previous statements, Bronson on Tuesday said he now supports using the Golden Lion hotel for housing as part of the city's homelessness efforts.

'He's the one at the meeting when Dave's not'

By June of last year, Spoerhase's lawyers and city prosecutors had reached agreements to resolve his three city domestic violence cases.

In one case, the city dismissed two counts of violating a domestic violence protective order, court records show. Because all charges were dismissed by city prosecutors on Feb. 23 of last year, that case no longer appears on the court system's public searchable database.

In another, he pleaded no contest on May 23 to violating a domestic violence protective order. Three other charges — violating conditions of release, unlawful contact and stalking — were dismissed.

In the third city case, he pleaded no contest, also on May 23, to criminal mischief for kicking in Hickel's bedroom door. A misdemeanor domestic violence assault charge was dismissed. (It is not uncommon for prosecutors to combine misdemeanor cases for a single, "global" plea agreement that settles multiple pending cases.)

The most serious case, prosecuted by the state, remains open. A grand jury on Sept. 4, 2019, indicted Spoerhase on a charge of first-degree felony stalking of Hickel. That case is awaiting trial.

Baker serves as Bronson's senior policy adviser. Rather than working as a salaried city employee, Baker has received three sole-source city contracts for $29,500 each since July 2021.

The contracts are for six months each and are dated July 30, 2021, March 2 and Aug. 8, according to copies provided by the mayor's office Thursday in response to a Dec. 19 Daily News public records request.

In all three of the contracts, the city agreed to remove an indemnity clause that would have "(held) the city harmless from any claim, lawsuit or liability, including costs and attorney's fees allegedly arising from loss, damage or injury to persons or property occurring in in the course of the contractor's performance."

Baker has an office in City Hall with a sign bearing his senior policy adviser title.

"Baker doesn't have decision-making powers on paper, but we all know he does make decisions in the mayor's office," Hendrickson said in an interview. "He's the one that answers the questions when Amy (Demboski) can't. He's the one at the meeting when Dave is not."

Demboski's letter alleged the back-to-back contracting is a "clear violation of the law" limiting the size of such contracts. They are just under the $30,000 threshold that triggers a requirement for Anchorage Assembly approval. It's a setup that potentially allows Baker to receive public retirement payments while basically working as a city employee, the letter alleged. (A spokesman for the mayor's office said Bronson is not commenting on the letter.)

The BSI offices in South Anchorage were dark on a recent weekday. The white pickup that Spoerhase was driving when he violated a protective order, according to Hickel's statement to police and his no-contest plea in one of the city cases, sat parked beside the locked door. The company website also has gone dark.

As of Wednesday, Spoerhase was no longer serving on the Anchorage Community Development Authority's advisory committee, according to director Mike Robbins. Robbins said he was the one who selected Spoerhase for the seat in fall 2021 and had been unaware of Spoerhase's criminal record. He might have made a different decision had he known, he wrote in an email.

Asked if the mayor approved the selection, Robbins replied: "He was aware that Mr. Spoerhase had joined the committee."

On Monday, Spoerhase's photo was featured on the ACDA's website as a committee member. By Wednesday — two days after the Daily News began asking questions about this appointment — his photo had been removed.

Robbins said that Spoerhase this week resigned his seat. Asked if the resignation had been voluntary, Robbins replied that he could no longer answer questions about the matter on the advice of the city attorney due to "pending litigation."

Demboski has threatened to sue the city if the mayor doesn't meet certain demands, such as settle her wrongful termination claim and issue an apology.