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Alaska Legislature

Seven aides at Alaska Capitol say legislator made unwanted advances and comments

Rep. Dean Westlake, January 18, 2017. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Seven women who are current or former aides at the Alaska Capitol say a member of the state House of Representatives repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances toward them or otherwise behaved inappropriately during this year's legislative sessions.

The women described the behavior in interviews with the Anchorage Daily News this week after one of them went public and recounted, in a letter to legislative leaders, unwanted touching and sexual comments by first-term Rep. Dean Westlake.

Westlake, a Democrat from the village of Kiana, near Kotzebue, issued a written apology Thursday.

"I firmly believe that everyone deserves a safe, healthy and professional working environment. I sincerely apologize if an encounter with me has made anyone uncomfortable. That has certainly never been my intent," the statement said.

Friday afternoon, after this article was published online, leaders of the House majority coalition, and the chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party, called for Westlake to resign.

Olivia Garrett, who worked for Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki this year, wrote to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, in March, detailing Westlake's behavior. She no longer works for the Legislature.

Olivia Garrett wrote to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon in the spring of 2017 detailing inappropriate behavior by Rep. Dean Westlake. (Anne Raup / ADN)

In one instance, she said, Westlake touched her and made a sexual comment. Another time, she said, he grabbed her inappropriately. Garrett, 23, said she released her letter this week because she felt the lawmakers' responses were insufficient.

Garrett's description of her interactions with Westlake parallels those of six other female aides interviewed by the Daily News this week.

Those staffers asked not to be identified out of fear of attracting attention to themselves in jobs in which discretion is prized. They described Westlake giving lingering hugs, making sexual comments, asking for dates and touching them inappropriately.

The incidents described were often witnessed by others and, some women said, are examples of a type of sexualized behavior that frequently goes unchecked in Juneau. Westlake was not the only person in and around the Legislature whose behavior they considered inappropriate for a workplace, they said.

[Contact reporters Nathaniel Herz and Julia O'Malley]

Most of the women said they did not formally report Westlake's behavior when it happened, citing the social and political pressures that come with working in Juneau.

Garrett and one of the other aides said they filed reports with the Legislature's human resources manager later on, after hearing other women describe Westlake's conduct.

Westlake's behavior continued after Garrett's letter to House leadership, according to the women. Four described encounters that took place afterward.

Edgmon, in a phone interview, wouldn't address the specifics of the incidents that Garrett described or the House's response to complaints. But after being told of the other women's accounts, he said he was "shocked" to see so many.

"I am committed, in the future, to changing the environment so that anyone who feels they've been violated can come forward in a way that allows them to be heard and allows them to feel safe in the workplace – and not be in a position of being retaliated against," Edgmon said. "If there's a takeaway for me, it's: Why is it that a lot of these women felt that they couldn't, or perhaps didn't, want to come forward in the past?"

Edgmon said their claims should be investigated, but he added that Westlake deserves "due process."

The Alaska Legislature's employee handbook for staffers says sexual harassment includes "unwelcome sexual advances" and "requests for sexual favors." It also includes verbal, physical or visual conduct "of a sexual nature," made when submitting to that conduct is an explicit or implicit condition of employment or when it creates a hostile work environment.

Managers and supervisors who witness or are aware of harassment must take action to stop the behavior and to report the alleged harassment, the handbook says.

There have been 22 investigations since the Legislature's harassment policy was adopted in 2000. Half were for sexual harassment, said Skiff Lobaugh, the Legislature's human resources manager.

Lawmakers from both the House and Senate this week held an organizational meeting for a subcommittee charged with updating the policy.

Legislative leaders have tasked the subcommittee with drafting recommendations to a full committee of House members and senators before the start of the legislative session in January.

Westlake, 57, is not married. He recently underwent heart surgery out of state and is now recovering in Alaska, an aide said.

He is finishing the first year of his first term, and is one of 22 majority members, most of them Democrats, in the 40-member House.

Last year, Westlake drew financial and political support from the Alaska Democratic Party in his primary campaign against the incumbent Democrat in the huge, northernmost state House district, which sweeps across much of Alaska's Arctic. The incumbent Democrat, Ben Nageak, was part of the largely Republican majority, which relegated the state House's urban Democrats to the minority.

Those urban Democrats, and party leaders, subsequently helped Westlake to a win so narrow that the Alaska Supreme Court had to reverse a lower court decision giving the seat to Nageak.

'We pass these policies …'

None of the women interviewed worked directly for Westlake. But in the Capitol it is common for staffers to change offices between sessions, they said, depending on whether their bosses are re-elected.

Many of the women worried that speaking publicly about Westlake would damage their reputations and make it harder to get work from other elected officials in the future.

Some described their encounters with Westlake as growing out of a Juneau culture that has few boundaries between work and after-hours social events.

One female aide in her early 30s said she was in a meeting around the beginning of this year's legislative session, which started in January. She was with her boss, who is a legislator, along with Westlake and one of his aides.

The aide said she was sitting on a couch next to Westlake when he put his hand on her leg. She said she brushed it off and moved away, and hasn't had another incident with Westlake since then.

A second aide said she was working at a committee hearing in April when Westlake asked her to pass a note to her boss, another legislator.

After the meeting, her boss showed her the handwritten message, stressing that he disapproved: Westlake had asked her boss to let her know that she "looked really good" in the dress she was wearing, she said.

Westlake repeated that comment directly to the aide in the hallway later that day, she said. After that, the aide said, she avoided Westlake.

A third staffer said she was wearing a button-up shirt, a skirt and leggings on a warm spring day in Juneau. When she approached Westlake, who was standing with another lawmaker, he asked how legislators were supposed to get any work done when staff members were dressed "like that."

The aide, who's in her early 20s, said Westlake referred to her at different times as "honey," "sweetheart" and "baby."

A fourth aide, in her mid-20s, said Westlake often tried to hug her in a way that was "too much" and told her she looked "beautiful."

A fifth aide at the Capitol, who's in her 30s, said that Westlake, several times, gave her "lingering" hugs that felt inappropriate and asked her on dates. After a fourth incident, the aide said, she told Westlake he was making her uncomfortable, and the advances stopped.

A sixth female legislative aide, in her 20s, said Westlake three times said things or touched her in a way that made her uncomfortable.

Asked about the specific behavior described by the women, an aide to Westlake referred reporters to the legislator's statement issued Thursday.

Garrett said her first incident with Westlake happened at a political fundraiser at a museum across the street from the Capitol, the night before the legislative session began in January.

Garrett was walking past Westlake in a hallway when, she said, he grabbed her arm, then told her that her hair "turned him on."

Olivia Garrett, a former legislative aide, said Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kiana, made unwanted comments and physical contact with her at this Democratic fundraiser in January at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. (Marc Lester / ADN)

She said the comment and contact surprised her. She walked away before she could think of how to respond, she said.

Two months later, Garrett said, she was at a charity fundraising party in downtown Juneau in what she described as a dark, crowded room.

She said she noticed Westlake standing nearby. As he walked past, Garrett said, he grabbed her buttocks.

Garrett first came forward publicly about Westlake – without naming him – at an Alaska Democratic Party meeting last month in Soldotna. She said she was motivated to talk about Westlake after hearing other women describe similar incidents involving him, and after she decided it was worth the risk that she might not get another job in the Legislature.

"Nothing's being done, you know?" Garrett said in an interview this week. "We give all this lip service to this, we pass these policies, but that doesn't change that we have a culture that kind of lets abuse like this run rampant."

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