Alaska Legislature

House leaders strip Bethel lawmaker of staff as they await resignation decision

Bethel Democratic Rep. Zach Fansler pokes his head out from the floor of the Alaska House earlier this year. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

Alaska House leaders have stripped a state House member of his staff and asked him to return his office keys as they await his decision on whether to resign after a woman alleged that he struck her during an encounter in a Juneau hotel room.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said his largely Democratic majority has asked for Bethel Democratic Rep. Zach Fansler's resignation.

"We have not gotten a response from Rep. Fansler," Edgmon told reporters at a Capitol news conference Tuesday morning. "But we respect the fact that it's a serious decision for him, and it's a decision that may take him some time to make."

Fansler and his attorney, Wally Tetlow, didn't respond to messages Tuesday. Tetlow said Saturday that Fansler had no immediate plans to resign.

A Juneau woman has accused Fansler of slapping her twice earlier this month in his room at the Alaskan Hotel, where the two had gone after a night out at Juneau bars. They had had a romantic encounter in June, and this month, she said the two of them kissed before he slapped her, according to an account she gave the Juneau Empire.

Fansler subsequently apologized in a text message, according to the Empire's story, saying he was sorry he'd ventured into "kink BDSM" — a term short for sexual practices involving bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism.

The Empire published a text from the woman the day after the hotel room encounter that said the lack of consent was what upset her.

"I want to make it clear that being slapped was not the problem. I like that," the text message said. "You were too drunk and you weren't listening to me. That's why it was upsetting."

The woman decided to go to the newspaper with the story after realizing that Fansler injured her ear drum when he slapped her, according to the Empire.

The Empire's reporter, James Brooks, said he corroborated the woman's account with three people she told after it happened. She also told police.

Edgmon said in a statement Saturday that the incident was the "subject of an ongoing criminal investigation." But law enforcement has not released any information on investigations into the alleged altercation, and Fansler has not been charged with a crime.

Fansler, 39, is halfway through his first two-year term in the Legislature; he'd been embraced by other House Democrats after defeating a Democratic incumbent, Bob Herron, who was part of a previous, largely Republican majority.

House leaders said Tuesday that they were alarmed to hear of the accusations against Fansler and hope he steps down.

If Fansler resigns, he would be the second House Democrat to do so in the past two months. Former Rep. Dean Westlake, who's from the Northwest Alaska village of Kiana, resigned in December after being accused by seven women of unwanted sexual advances.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux said the Empire's story and Fansler's text messages support her caucus' request that he quit.

"I think the credible information that we have received so far, at the very least, shows conduct unbecoming of a legislator. And if the legislator were to continue in office that would be a black mark on the institution and would erode the public trust in our institution," said LeDoux, one of three Republicans in House leadership.

House leaders haven't ruled out the possibility of expelling Fansler — a move authorized by the Alaska Constitution with a two-thirds vote of the House. But legislative rules require specific procedural steps before expulsion can take place, making for a more lengthy process than if Fansler can be persuaded to step down, LeDoux said.

It's clear, she added, that the allegations undermine Fansler's ability to represent his constituents.

"I think it's over," she said.

If Fansler resigns, it could take weeks before his replacement is selected, leaving his district, centered in Bethel, without representation. The Legislature's annual session is scheduled to last 90 days, but it often runs long.

State law would allow Gov. Bill Walker to pick any registered Democrat for the seat, though traditionally, he selects from a list of three names provided by local party leaders.

Walker last week filled the vacancy left by Westlake's resignation with a candidate who wasn't on party leaders' original list, however. John Lincoln, a Native corporation executive, is expected to be sworn in Wednesday; he was recommended by Democrats from his Northwest Alaska district after Walker balked at the first three candidates.

Walker also still needs to fill a vacancy left by former Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Dunleavy, who resigned earlier this month to run for governor.