Westlake accused of sexual misconduct
The North Slope and Northwest Arctic's representative in the State House has been accused of sexual misconduct by a former legislative staffer.
The woman, who provided only her first name, Olivia, in a letter of complaint, said Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kiana) inappropriately touched her and made lewd comments to her on multiple occasions.
Westlake, who is out of the state recovering from surgery, was not able to provide comments to the Sounder by deadline.
Olivia wrote a letter to both House Speaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham) and House Majority Leader Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) on March 13, 2017, notifying them of Westlake's alleged actions. It is unclear, at this point, why the allegations did not surface outside the Legislature until now.
She said the first incident happened on Jan. 16 at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. Legislative staffers and legislators reside in the Juneau area during the session.
"He grabbed me and made a comment about my hair, saying that it 'turned him on.' This incident was obviously unexpected and sudden, so I kept walking before I could think of a response," she wrote.
On March 11, she said they were both at the art studio Canvas in downtown Juneau.
"We were in a dark, crowded room and I didn't see him until he was right next to me. He grabbed my butt as he walked by," she wrote.
She continued, saying she pushed his shoulder away, but "not with enough force" to catch his attention. Olivia said a second staffer saw the encounter, but did not name the witness.
The Sounder was not able to confirm Westlake's visit to either the gallery or the museum by deadline.
"I did not expect a second incident, because I thought I had made it clear that I did not welcome it again. Although I hope that nothing similar does happen again, I want to be very clear that this kind of conduct is unwelcome," she wrote. "Hopefully Rep. Westlake and I can both move forward in a professional manner."
Westlake was backed by the Alaska Democratic Party when he defeated former Rep. Ben Nageak in the last election. When contacted, the party said they were aware of the allegations, and said they do not tolerate sexual misconduct.
Party Spokesperson Alice Kim noted the party adopted a code of conduct last week that includes guidelines on appropriate behavior, including "respect[ing] the personal space of all, including prudent use of physical contact" and "tak[ing] a leadership stance when witnessing inappropriate, sexist, racist language, harassment, and/or behavior that victimizes another such as bullying, groping, assault ... "
She also noted that candidates who participate in the upcoming 2018 campaign will be required to complete an online sexual harassment awareness course.
"Responsibility falls on each of us to advocate for a safe, positive and productive experience when participating in the democratic process and elsewhere," said Party Chair Casey Steinau, in a letter announcing the mandatory training. "We look forward to supporting progressive candidates that are committed to upholding our zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. We believe this is an important step in setting clear expectations. Our party will continue to examine and revise all policies to ensure our staff, volunteers, candidates and activists are treated with mutual respect."
Men in leadership positions around the country have been in the spotlight recently as women have come forward with stories of assault, sexual misconduct and harassment, and organizations are taking steps to better prevent and respond to incidents within their own ranks.
In Juneau, there is a new working group in the Legislative Council dedicated to looking into harassment. It is expected to review the current policy within the Legislature and return with comments at the start of the next session.
Over the last several weeks, a handful of Alaska leaders have faced similar accusations of inappropriate conduct, or have had older complaints come to light, as has now happened with the Arctic's representative.
This is a developing story.