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Alaska lawmakers go back to work amid sex misconduct fallout

In this Jan. 17, 2017, photo, state Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue, talks with another legislator during a break in the opening session of the Alaska Legislature in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Thiessen / Associated Press)
In this Jan. 17, 2017, photo, state Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue, talks with another legislator during a break in the opening session of the Alaska Legislature in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Thiessen / Associated Press)
By Becky Bohrer Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska – The Alaska Legislature opens a new session Tuesday amid lingering fallout from the resignation of a House member accused of inappropriate behavior toward female aides.

A new member is expected to be appointed to the House this month to replace Dean Westlake, the freshman Democrat who resigned. Lawmakers have vowed to rewrite an 18-year-old policy against sexual and other harassment that critics say leaves room for interpretation. And legislators will be required to attend harassment and discrimination prevention training.

Some minority House Republicans have called for an external investigation into the handling of the Westlake allegations or any sexual harassment complaints made last year.

Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson sees the training as a “dog and pony show” and an effort to divert attention from the Westlake case. She wants the investigation before she agrees to training.

There must be a clear policy going forward, she said, “but we also can’t forget what already happened.”

In a March letter to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, former legislative aide Olivia Garrett alleged misconduct by Westlake at two work-related events. At one, she said he grabbed her and said her hair “turned him on,” and at the other, that he grabbed her buttocks.

Garrett said Tuck, a Democrat, advised her to use certain language in the letter, including asking that the issue be shared with Westlake “privately so no one is embarrassed or damaged.”

She went public with her concerns later, when she said no one followed up with her about the letter. Tuck cited confidentiality concerns when The Associated Press asked him about the case last month.

Westlake did not address the allegations specifically but apologized “if an encounter with me has made anyone uncomfortable.”

Edgmon, a Democrat, has said he spoke with Westlake after receiving the complaint in March but has not elaborated. When new allegations emerged last month, Edgmon and other House leaders urged Westlake to resign.

Edgmon said the House majority, a coalition composed largely of Democrats who took control last year, wants to be proactive in making any changes to state law to ensure a safer work environment.

“We need to take action, and we need to change the culture in the Legislature,” said Edgmon, who became speaker last year. He said he doesn’t want to see the process become politicized.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Kevin Meyer and his House counterpart, Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, adopted the new training amid a focus on sexual harassment and misconduct in workplaces around the U.S.

A legislative ethics committee also mandated the training for this year after the Legislature’s top attorney called it a “matter of risk management.” Members who don’t comply could face an ethics complaint.

Meyer, a Republican who has served in both the House and Senate, said he has not seen any problems.

“But I think sometimes people get careless and maybe don’t think that, hey, how’s this other person accepting what you’re saying or doing,” he said. “You may think it’s harmless, but they don’t. And I think sometimes people don’t speak up, and they should.”

He hopes the training will encourage people to come forward if they feel they are being harassed or to think twice about things they say or do.

As of early December, the Legislature has had 22 investigations for allegations of sexual harassment or other workplace harassment or violations, according to its human resources manager, Skiff Lobaugh. He said he could not provide details on the cases.

Also this session, the legislative agenda includes the now-familiar task of trying to address a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, with the added pressure of looming elections and control of the House and the governor’s office up for grabs.

Legislators, unable to agree on the best path forward, have been using savings to help cover state expenses. They are expected to resume debate over tapping the earnings of the state’s oil wealth fund.

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