A former Alaska House staff member has alleged two incidents of sexual harassment by Rep. Dean Westlake, a Kotzebue Democrat. A report on the allegations today prompted House Speaker Bryce Edgmon to encourage victims of harassment to come forward.
Olivia Garrett worked for Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki during the legislative session this spring. She said Westlake harassed her on two occasions.
Garrett said she addressed a letter to Edgmon and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat. In it, she wrote that Westlake grabbed her and told her that her hair “turned him on.”
On the second occasion, she said he grabbed her buttocks as she passed by.
Garrett said she wrote the letter at Tuck’s direction, including his instruction to include the phrase, “I hope we can both move forward in a professional manner so no one is embarrassed or damaged.” She said she never heard anything more about it from Tuck. She said she believes Tuck never showed Edgmon the letter or spoke with Westlake.
Tuck gave limited comment.
“She is free to say that, but at this time we are not free to respond, because of the nature of the allegations, as well as preserving the privacy rights for future complainants coming forward,” he said.
He added that any response he made could be construed as a form of retaliation.
The blog Must Read Alaska reported on the allegations Wednesday morning. Soon after the report, Edgmon responded.
The Dilligham Democrat said he welcomes those who’ve experienced harassment to bring their concerns to his office.
“We don’t condone this kind of activity and we’re committed to making changes in the Legislature so it doesn’t happen in the future,” Edgmon said.
An aide to Westlake said the representative is recovering from heart surgery he recently had and wouldn’t have a comment at this time.
A subcommittee is meeting Thursday with a goal of making recommendations to revise the Legislature’s sexual harassment policies. They were last updated in 2000.
Edgmon explained the subcommittee’s task.
“It’s our intent to go back and revisit those policies and to look at the formal complaint process and certainly the informal complaint process and to see how we can strengthen and modernize, if you will, how that occurs,” he said.
Garrett wasn’t available for a phone call on Wednesday, but answered questions by email. She made her concerns about Westlake public at an Alaska Democratic Party meeting last week. She also raised concerns about how the party handled a separate complaint she made last year.
The party then announced that it would require all candidates participating in the party’s coordinated campaign next year to complete an online sexual harassment awareness course.
Garrett said mandatory training is a positive step but isn’t enough. She said: “I hope there are consequences for offending staff and legislators and that they’re enforced.”
Garrett also called on Westlake to resign. She said the House majority should remove Westlake from committees and take away his staff.
Alaska Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley said the Legislature should investigate Garrett’s allegations.
“If all of these accusations are true, there’s no doubt that Rep. Westlake should step aside and should resign, because there’s just no place for this in the Legislature,” he said.
Edgmon said the national attention on harassment could prove to be a watershed moment in reducing harassment.
“I think we ought to seize the moment and do whatever we can to make sure we can change the culture going forward,” he said.
The sexual harassment policy subcommittee is expected to submit recommendations before the next legislative session starts.