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Alaska Legislature

Legislative report validates harassment complaints against former Alaska Rep. Westlake

Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kiana, sits in the House chamber last year. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

JUNEAU — A newly released legislative report corroborates three women's complaints of unwanted sexual advances by Dean Westlake, the former Democratic representative from the village of Kiana in Northwest Alaska.

In the report, Westlake, who resigned last month, addressed details of the complaints for the first time.

He didn't dispute three of the allegations examined by the Legislature's investigators. In a fourth case, he denied making a specific comment to a female legislative aide but also acknowledged that "he is a big flirt and may have said something," according to the report.

The report found evidence of "pervasive" inappropriate action from Westlake that created a "hostile work environment."

Westlake, in a phone interview Tuesday, said he wasn't warned of the report's release. He said he disputes its conclusions and details, though he wouldn't specify its alleged inaccuracies.

"I definitely want to appeal this," he said. "This is ridiculous."

A House committee agreed to release the report late Monday after a lengthy closed-door meeting.

The five-page report, from the Legislature's human resources manager, Skiff Lobaugh, examined four complaints from three legislative aides — all of which the women had detailed in interviews with the ADN last month.

In total, seven women told ADN that Westlake made unwanted advances, though most said they didn't report Westlake's alleged behavior at the time.

Lobaugh interviewed or received written accounts from all three women, according to his report; the others either did not contact him or declined to discuss their allegations. Lobaugh also interviewed Westlake, Westlake said.

Two of the four allegations came from Olivia Garrett, a former Democratic aide who in December publicly accused Westlake of misconduct.

Olivia Garrett (Anne Raup / ADN)

Garrett said Westlake grabbed her arm and said her hair "turned him on" at a political fundraiser early last year. They'd never spoken before, Garrett said.

At a party two months later, Garrett said, Westlake grabbed her buttocks.

Lobaugh's report said a "grab" or "hug" at the fundraiser was "substantiated," though the hair comment couldn't be verified by witnesses.

Westlake said he's a "hugger" and added that he "'wouldn't have been surprised if I hugged her," the report said.

The report also corroborated Garrett's second allegation, with Westlake, Garrett and two other House aides all confirming there was "physical contact" at the party.

The two House aides, according to the report, said Westlake "went to hug (Garrett) and she turned so he ended up with a hand on her lower back."

"Westlake said he would not be surprised if he hugged her," the report said. "The difference between the lower back and the butt is a matter of perception, and therefore this allegation is substantiated."

Lobaugh also investigated complaints about Westlake by two other legislative staffers, both of whose accounts were published by ADN last month. They asked not to be identified to avoid attracting attention to themselves in a job in which discretion is prized.

One said Westlake passed a note at a committee hearing to another male legislator; it said the female aide looked good in her dress. Later, Westlake made the same comment directly to the aide, she said, which Westlake didn't deny in the report.

"Westlake stated that he genuinely felt that the (aide) looked good in the dress and was trying to pay her a compliment," the report said.

The fourth female aide was delivering expense checks to legislators when she came across Westlake and another legislator on a fire escape outside the Capitol, according to the report.

The aide, in a December interview, said Westlake asked her how legislators were supposed to get any work done when staff members were dressed "like that."

Westlake told Lobaugh, the Legislature's investigator, that he would not have phrased his remarks that way.

"He did admit he is a big flirt and may have said something," the report said.

Westlake, in the phone interview Tuesday, said he was "truly sorry" if he'd made anyone uncomfortable. But he also said his comments and actions were always made "with the best of intentions."

"I've done it in public. It was never in private," he said. "I was free with the compliments and genuinely, I didn't mean it in any perverse way and I never thought that anyone would think that, because I did it in public."

The report also includes new details about the sequence of the complaints against Westlake and the response from the House's largely Democratic majority, to which Westlake belonged.

House leaders have been facing criticism from members of the Republican minority for failing to stop Westlake's behavior after Garrett addressed it in a March 13 letter to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage.

A week after the letter, according to the report, Edgmon "counseled Rep. Westlake, letting him know his actions were inappropriate and that they would not be tolerated."

But Westlake's encounter with the female aide in the dress took place a month after that. And only after a December KTVA-TV story on Garrett's letter did Edgmon and Tuck ask for a human resources investigation, the report said.

House leaders have said they addressed Garrett's complaints discreetly because she asked in her letter that they be shared with Westlake privately, "so no one is embarrassed or damaged."

Garrett said Tuck instructed her to include that language in her letter.

One of the two other aides whose complaints were investigated by Lobaugh said in an email that she thinks the findings make clear that "the culture around sexual harassment and reporting it needs to change, because there are still women who are afraid to come forward, likely for a variety of reasons, to make an official report."

"It's a serious thing when staff feels safer speaking anonymously with the press than they do speaking with human resources," she wrote.

Garrett, in a phone interview Tuesday, said she thinks the report, and Westlake's behavior, contain two lessons.

The first: "For legislators, and I think men in general — especially if they wield power over other people — just keep your hands to yourself," she said.

The second lesson, Garrett said, is that harassment complaints should be referred to someone outside the political process, since regardless of their intentions, legislative leaders don't necessarily have the knowledge or training they need to handle them appropriately, she argued.

The Legislature's current harassment policy says reports can be made to Lobaugh, supervisors, or staff to legislative leaders. That policy is now under review by a legislative committee.

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