With a brief speech before last week’s confirmation vote for Board of Fisheries nominee Karl Johnstone, Rep. Ivy Spohnholz opened one heck of a can of worms. Johnstone is a retired Superior Court judge who served two previous terms on the board. In her comments, Rep. Spohnholz said multiple women had reached out to her to say Johnstone had made “inappropriate and unwelcome sexual comments” to them during one of his stints on the board.
Understandably, the allegation of sexual harassment roiled the confirmation session. Johnstone’s nomination was briefly tabled, then brought up for a vote later in the evening, with no further explanation or investigation of the allegation. Ultimately, he was rejected, with 33 legislators voting against his confirmation and 24 in support.
Reasonable people can disagree about the proper process authorities should follow when dealing with an allegation of sexual misconduct. What the Legislature did, and specifically the way Spohnholz chose to reveal the accusations however, was a mockery of that process.
Before getting into the Legislature’s missteps, this should come first: Those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault should never be dissuaded from reporting. They should do so to whomever they feel comfortable, at whatever time they can. They should not be disbelieved because of the timeliness (or lack thereof) of their report, nor should they be disbelieved because of the person, circumstance or venue they choose for that report. Alaska has a monumental, epidemic problem with sexual assault and domestic violence, and casting aspersions blindly at the accounts of those who do come forward discourages those who haven’t yet summoned the courage to do so. Their accounts should be heard, taken seriously and investigated.
In fairness to legislators, they did appear to take the report, as related by Rep. Spohnholz, seriously. In fact, the body made the right choice initially — to table Johnstone’s nomination until they could investigate further (as they also did with veterinary board nominee Scott Flamme, for unrelated issues). But inexplicably, and out of view of the public, they decided later in the evening that they had all the information they needed. Johnstone was never afforded the opportunity to respond to the allegations, and no investigation into their veracity was attempted. Rather than embarking on a fair and transparent process to address the allegations, members of the Legislature activated a political one: counting votes. It became clear that Johnstone’s nomination no longer had support, his nomination was taken up again and the vote was held.
The Legislature’s handling of what should be treated as a serious complaint has exposed the body’s lack of a meaningful process for dealing with such allegations. Rep. Spohnholz said she told several colleagues about the matter, including those in House and Senate leadership, in advance of the vote. Her conversation with the joint session’s leadership should have led to removal of Johnstone from immediate consideration, obviating the need for her public statement airing the complaints while votes were taking place. Bringing forth the matter so that many members first heard of the allegation immediately before the vote, even if Rep. Spohnholz did so with the alleged victims in mind and the best of intentions, was extremely prejudicial and politicized the allegation. Immediately, and without any further evidence, some of those who backed Johnstone began to mount defenses and those skeptical of his confirmation for other reasons were galvanized in opposition. His accusers deserved the right to have their complaint fully heard, and Johnstone deserved the right to respond and present evidence in his defense.
Even without a well-established process for handling such issues in the Legislature, that could have been better accomplished if the Legislature had tabled Johnstone’s nomination — as they initially did — and investigated in the days afterward. Instead, their decision to take the nomination off the table for a hasty vote was tainted by the air of uncertainty introduced by the unexplored complaint — even if Johnstone never had enough support to pass muster in the first place, as those who voted against him later said.
Now, the women who say Johnstone harassed them will have no opportunity to make their case. And Johnstone, who says he was wrongfully accused, may have no opportunity to respond. Both parties were treated improperly when Rep. Spohnholz rose to speak April 17. Now, looking to codify a process for such events in the future, she has floated the idea of the Legislature making provisions for executive sessions, sealed from public view. But given the nature of the Legislature when doing its business in public, and after what we’ve seen during the past 10 days, what faith can Alaskans have that the body will do a more trustworthy job behind closed doors?