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Alaska lawmakers feud over handling of sexual harassment complaints

Reps. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, and Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, talk with Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, on the House floor last year. Wilson and LeDoux are now in a fight over how the Legislature should move forward after allegations of sexual harassment against a former colleague. (Marc Lester / ADN)

An Alaska legislator is demanding that a powerful state House leader step down over allegedly mishandling accusations of sexual misconduct. The House leader says she was never told of the accusations and lacked the power to respond to them.

The dispute pits two of the state House's highest-profile women against each other.

And it raises questions about responsibility for an apparent lapse that allowed the alleged misconduct to continue, and about how the Legislature attempts to change its culture around power and harassment.

The feud between Republican Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage and Tammie Wilson of North Pole heated up last week, with Wilson detailing her own allegation that she was bullied by a former state senator to a political blog, the Alaska Landmine.

Wilson, a member of the House minority, is refusing to attend a training on sexual harassment that's been newly mandated by LeDoux.

In response, LeDoux, one of three Republicans in the leadership of the largely-Democratic House majority, has threatened to block Wilson from hiring legislative aides.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage. (Marc Lester / ADN)

"I want to protect our employees, and I don't want to put them in awkward positions — unsafe positions," LeDoux said in a phone interview. "The only way I know how to do this is by saying, 'If you don't take the training, you don't have employees.' "

But Wilson argues it's LeDoux that already jeopardized the well-being of legislative aides, based on how the House majority responded to complaints that former Kiana Democratic Rep. Dean Westlake behaved inappropriately around women.

Wilson says there needs to be a fuller accounting of majority leaders' response to the accusations against Westlake before she's willing to move on.

"To me, the training is kind of like a squirrel: 'Go look over here, and once it gets done, we're just going to try to pretend nothing happened in March,' " Wilson said in a phone interview. She added: "You have to look and see what happened before you can figure out how to fix it."

The feud between LeDoux and Wilson has each of them accusing the other of politicizing the allegations against Westlake, who recently resigned.

That was after former legislative aide Olivia Garrett went public in December, saying Westlake touched her and made a sexual comment while the two were attending a fundraiser, and that he grabbed her inappropriately at a party two months later.

After the party, Garrett sent a letter to two House leaders — House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, and Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage — describing the two encounters as "unwelcome." She asked them to share her concerns with Westlake privately, "so no one is embarrassed or damaged."

But in interviews with the ADN, four women recounted unwelcome advances by Westlake that they said happened after Garrett sent her letter.

Wilson said that's evidence House leaders didn't respond appropriately to Garrett's complaint. And since LeDoux is chair of the House Rules Committee — which gives her power over hiring and firing of staff during the legislative session — Wilson says that raises questions about what she knew about Garrett's complaints.

Wilson said she wants the complaints to be reviewed by an independent investigator, or for any internal investigation by the Legislature's own human resources manager to be made public.

North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

"It could be that they took all the right steps," Wilson said, referring to House leaders. "But right now, with what's been said, it sure appears that they just want to sweep it underneath the rug."

LeDoux said an internal human resources investigation is finished, but added that she can't legally discuss it. She would like it to be published, she said, but the Legislature's attorneys are "going to have something to say about this."

Edgmon and Tuck didn't tell her about the incidents with Westlake when they happened, LeDoux said. That wouldn't have made sense, she added, since her authority extends only over the behavior of legislative staff — not legislators themselves.

Tuck, in a phone interview, said the response to Garrett's letter was that Edgmon, the House speaker, "had a stern talking-to with Dean."

"And at that time, everybody was happy — there were no further occurrences between the claimant and Westlake," Tuck said. He added that he and Edgmon only learned of the other allegations against Westlake much later; most of the other women didn't formally report their encounters at the time they occurred.

Should lawmakers move on to proactive steps to combat harassment even if some of them still have unanswered questions about allegations of past misconduct and their colleagues' response? LeDoux said she thinks so, and argued that Wilson is singling her out and trying to get her "unelected" over what's really an institutional problem.

"The problem is endemic to the Legislature. The House, the Senate, the Legislature and not just this year," LeDoux said. "The important thing, now, is not to fix the blame. The important thing now, as I come back to this, is to try to actually fix the problem."

Wilson, she added, "wants to blame the entire issue of harassment in the Legislature on one person."

But Wilson said it's critical to establish exactly what did and didn't happen after Garrett made her complaint against Westlake. The only way of stopping bad behavior in the future, she added, "is by making sure that whatever happened in the past — whatever mistakes were done — won't be repeated."

If LeDoux didn't know anything about the complaints, Wilson added, "then why, specifically, did the two men decide that they didn't need to say anything else? What kind of fix did they try to do? Why didn't it work?"

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