Alaska's House majority leader said Wednesday that lawmakers are looking at how to proceed after Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kiana, said he would ignore calls to resign over allegations of inappropriate behavior with female aides.
"I know there are caucus members apprehensive of doing anything until the investigations are over," said House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage.
Lawmakers are grappling with the complicated process of vetting the allegations, many of them from anonymous staffers, Tuck said. They want to send a message that condemns sexual harassment but must also provide a fair process to Westlake, he said, adding that legislators must agree on an appropriate response and deal with its political implications.
"Sexual harassment, there is no black-and-white line," he said. "A comment from one person to another person may be received and delivered differently."
Democratic leaders asked Westlake to step down shortly after an Anchorage Daily News report was published last week in which seven current and former aides described lingering hugs, sexual comments, asking for dates and unwelcome touching. Westlake said in a statement Tuesday that actions he saw as "friendly or funny" may have been mistakenly seen as "offensive and intrusive" by the women.
"These stories do not reflect who I am," he wrote.
Tuck said the investigation process is complicated by the fact that only one of the women, a former aide named Olivia Garrett, has come forward publicly with her story, which has now triggered a formal investigation.
The other women who agreed to speak to the Daily News did so anonymously out of fear of losing professional opportunities in a working environment where many said that sexually inappropriate behavior is often tolerated. Most did not report their experiences using the formal process. All of that makes it difficult to verify what was really going on, Tuck said.
"It's very hard to act when we don't know what's happening or not happening," he said. "It's very hard for our (human resources) officer to investigate if people don't feel comfortable coming forward."
This leaves the legislators with many questions about how to give Westlake due process and which information to consider when making a decision, Tuck said. The system at the Capitol for investigating and protecting aides from harassment is "imperfect," he said. Women don't trust it, he said. He suggested that the process, which is now handled internally through Legislative Affairs, could instead be handled by an outside body, with recommendations made at the end.
Lawmakers have several possible options to address the Westlake situation, Tuck said. One is to eject him from the majority caucus. This would cost Westlake committee positions and staff and would likely mean exchanging his comfortable first-floor office for a smaller one.
But that decision would come with political implications. The largely Democratic majority is composed of 22 members in the 40-member House. Without Westlake, it would be whittled down to 21, the bare minimum.
And, if Westlake chooses to join the Republican minority (and the minority accepts him), the majority could lose a seat on the powerful finance committee. Seats are assigned based on the ratio of majority to minority representatives.
"We asked for Dean Westlake's resignation and we are willing to risk (that) to do the right thing," Tuck said.
The full House could also send a message of condemnation by formally censuring Westlake. That process, however, is similar to passing a resolution, which is essentially a strongly worded letter.
The most extreme option would be expulsion. That has happened only once, in 1982, when George Hohman was expelled from the state Senate after a bribery conviction. Doing that would require a two-thirds majority vote.
The Westlake scandal began with Garrett, then 22, who worked for Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki earlier this year. She wrote to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, and Tuck in March, describing two inappropriate incidents with Westlake.
Garrett said she came forward publicly this month because she was unhappy with the outcome.
Tuck said that as far as he understood at the time, Garrett didn't want a formal investigation and instead wanted only for Westlake's behavior to stop. Tuck said Edgmon gave Westlake "a stern talking-to."
When he was approached about Garrett's complaints, Westlake was defensive, Tuck added.
"He was adamantly disagreeing with the series of events," Tuck said. "He was adamantly upset."
After that, Garrett had no further incidents with Westlake. But four of the women who spoke to the Daily News said they had encounters afterward.
Edgmon was traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment, but an aide confirmed that Tuck's description of the Westlake conversation was accurate.
Some have compared Westlake's situation to a scandal in the early 1990s involving then-Sen. George Jacko, who was found to have harassed a number of women in an investigation that included inquiries by Alaska State Troopers, Juneau police and the state attorney general.
Legislators stripped Jacko of his chairmanships and out-of-state travel privileges, required him to take anger management and other trainings, and formally censured him.
Garrett said that she was disappointed to hear that Westlake didn't resign. She said she wants the Legislature to do something to condemn his behavior.
"If he's not expelled or removed from committees, I think it sends a clear message that there aren't consequences," she said.
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, said it's more complicated to hold an elected official accountable than a regular employee. A legislator's "bosses" are his constituents — who unfortunately, she said, don't have much direct supervision of their employee in Juneau.
Spohnholz said she hopes a newly formed sexual harassment working group will develop a process that works better for victims. Westlake "crossed the line" with female staffers "numerous times," she said.
"I don't think it's excusable in 2017 to laugh off sexual harassment as you're just playing around and thinking you're being funny," she said. "Rep. Westlake is not the only person in the Legislature who has been inappropriate with staff. He's just the first one to be called to task publicly for it."
Reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed to this story.