In a historic and unprecedented move, the Alaska Legislature Wednesday night vetoed a gubernatorial appointment on the basis of a #metoo rumor.
The vote came after Rep. Ivy Sponholz, D-Anch., said she had concerns about Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s appointment of retired Anchorage Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone to the state Board of Fisheries.
“In the last 24-hours, more than two women have reached out to my office, people who worked for the Board of Fish when Johnstone was previously on the Board of Fish to share concerns about his behavior,” Sponholz said. “They each described inappropriate sexual comments, which created a hostile work environment for them repeatedly.”
The discussion didn’t go much farther before the Johnstone vote was tabled only to have the joint session of the House and Senate reconvene later to vote 33-24 against his confirmation.
“It is hurtful knowing that my daughters will read this and have to explain,” Johnstone said today.
Rumors that sexual harassment charges might be leveled at Johnstone first circulated over the weekend. They were expected to come up when Johnstone spent hours before the House Resources Committee on Monday night. They did not.
Still, it was being whispered that former BOF member Sue Jeffrey from Kodiak had an issue with Johnstone. Asked about the rumor today, she said, that if there was anyone with an issue “I’m absolutely not that person.”
She added that she had no knowledge of Johnstone sexually harassing anyone.
The Johnstone confirmation process was rife with anonymous or vague accusations that he harassed or threatened people, who were said to be afraid to testify as to the specifics of any incidents because they feared “retaliation” from the former judge. It was never clear how Johnstone was expected to retaliate.
Alaska fishery politics – or fishtics as they are often called – are known for being down and dirty. Commercial fishing was the state’s original big business. Government, oil and tourism now do more to power the Alaska economy, but the fishing industry still rides through the halls of power on a golden image and swings a mean billie when it thinks that necessary.
Four years ago
Johnstone previously served on the BOF from 2008 to 2015. The Board operates as a tiny section within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It is now down to four employees though there were once more.
For at least part of the time that Johnstone served on the BOF, at least two of the employees were women – the executive director and one of two publication specialists. The then BOF director later transferred to another job within Fish and Game. The publication specialist left and eventually became the executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA), the commercial fishing organization that is one of the state’s most influential – if not the most influential – political lobbies.
Neither woman returned phone calls today. The UFA vowed it would block Johnstone’s confirmation to the Board and lobbied hard to stop it. Johnstone had in the past backed the idea of shifting some Cook Inlet salmon harvest from commercial fishermen to personal-use and sport fishermen to meet the demands of anglers and dipnetters in the Anchorage metro area.
The urban core of Alaska, the metro area is now home to more than half the state’s population, and many of them don’t think it’s fair 1,100 commercial fishermen annually account for 75 to 90 percent or more of the annual harvest of Inlet salmon.
Commercial fishermen, likewise, don’t think it’s fair that they should be ordered to give up a single salmon to anglers and personal-use dipnetters. The result is an unsolvable allocation problem for the BOF which lacks for legal guidelines to steer allocation decisions.
Thus decisions hinge solely on the feelings of Board members, who have long been pressured heavily by commercial fishermen and increasingly so by non-commercial interests. The UFA’s fear was that Johnstone, a legally trained advocate, could sway other Board members to his way of thinking on Inlet issues.
The UFA executive director appeared before House Resources on Monday but suggested no past #metoo moments with Johnstone, a man married to a state prosecutor. The UFA director read a statement opposing Johnstone and attacked him, as did many others, for suggesting the economic value of Alaska fisheries has been shifting away from commercial uses toward more valuable non-commercial harvests, such as sport fishing, ever since farmed fish took over the global market for salmon.
As did others, she pointed to 2107 op-ed in an Anchorage newspaper in which Johnstone suggested the Alaska commercial fishing business as it now operates is “old and faded.
“Our industry,” she said, “is anything but old and fading, and to suggest otherwise shows a deep lack of understanding and respect for our contributions to this state.”
Some of those who served with Johnstone on the Board over the years said they could imagine his upsetting “someone with sensitivity,” as former BOF member Tom Kluberton put it, but none of them saw any hint of sexual harassment. Kluberton was the bluntest of Johnstone’s former fellow Board members.
“I can imagine disrespect,” Kluberton said. “That part is easy…a grumpy old man, a grumpy old judge.
“A horny old man? That part I just don’t see.”
That said, Kluberton added, it was possible to imagine Johnstone at a busy Board meeting telling a female member of the Fish and Game staff, or for that matter a male, to “go get me a couple of pencils and a cup of coffee.”
What Johnstone did or didn’t do while serving on the Board in the past now appears as if it will never be known. When the process began, Johnstone said he was ready to face any questions that arose. He was today resigned to the fact that the process is over, and there is no way for him to answer any questions.
And no way to respond to any accusations.