Two more women who worked closely with retired Anchorage Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone when he served on the Alaska Board of Fisheries prior to 2015 say they saw no sign of the sexual harassment of which Johnstone stands anonymously accused, and the current director of the Board on Tuesday joined others within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game saying no one ever reported any sexual harassment.
Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy tried to reappoint Johnstone to the Board this year only to have Johnstone’s confirmation rejected by the Alaska Legislature after Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, said “more than two women” who worked for the Board contacted her to say they’d been sexually harassed by Johnstone.
Ivy’s brief and suggestive comments came during a joint meeting of the House and Senate on Thursday. The meeting was scheduled to vote on confirmation of Dunleavy cabinet and other appointees, among them Fish Board members. Spohnholz offered no details on what exactly was alleged to have taken place and said the women wished to remain anonymous.
Austin Baird, the spokesman for the House Majority, said Monday that he did not know how many women were alleging sexual harassment. He referred all questions to Spohnholz. She did not respond to an email or a detailed message left with her staff.
House speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, likewise failed to respond to both email and phone requests for comment. The 77-year-old Johnstone issued a statement saying he didn’t sexually harass anyone.
Johnstone’s appointment to the Board had drawn aggressive opposition from the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA), one of the state’s most powerful political interest groups. The UFA rallied commercial fishermen across the state in an effort to block Johnstone’s confirmation, but it was widely believed the organization lacked the votes to succeed before Spohnholz dropped her bombshell.
After the revelation, the Legislature voted 33-to-24 block the Johnstone confirmation. Suzanne Downing, the editor of the right-leaning MustReadAlaska.com, later accused the heavily Democrat House Majority of “weaponizing” an anonymous #metoo accusation.
The Legislature vetoing a gubernatorial appointment to a board or commission solely on the basis of a rumor is unprecedented in state history.
The effort to fully fact check what is essentially a rumor has proven difficult. Among those who worked closely with the Board, a former executive director who was a woman and two top staff say they faced no harassment, but there are other women out there yet to be contacted.
One of the two women who worked closely with Johnstone while he was on the Board was Frances Leach, who is now the executive director of the UFA. The UFA wanted to stop Johnstone’s reappointment because he had in the past supported shifting some harvest of Cook Inlet sockeye salmon from commercial fishermen to personal-use dipnetters and anglers.
Cook Inlet at the door of Anchorage is the most fought over fishery in the 49th state. The Inlet doesn’t produce enough salmon to meet the demands of commercial fishermen let alone enough to provide for harvests for the state’s personal-use dipnetters and tourist anglers without commercial fishermen getting angry that they’ve been robbed of income.
Leach worked for the Board first as a publications specialist and then as a regulations specialist during a time when the Cook Inlet fish wars were contentious. She spent a fair amount of time around Johnstone in that job.
“Karl never sexually harassed me nor did I make claims he did so,” she said in response to an email. “My conversations with legislators (during confirmation proceedings in Juneau) were limited to his biases towards the commercial fishing industry and questions surrounding his residency.”
Susie Brito-Jenkins, the spouse of a commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay and a one-time coworker of Leach shed a little more light on that comment. Brito-Jenkins was the Southwest regional coordinator for Board support during much of the period Johnstone was on the Board.
Reached by phone at her home in Dillingham on Tuesday, she confessed to being a little surprised at the accusations leveled at the retired judge.
“I never saw anything,” she said. “I have talked to a couple of other folks about this.”
Leach was one of them. The two women had trouble reconciling the Johnstone they knew with the accusation, though Brito-Jenkins admitted that she, like Leach, was opposed to Johnstone rejoining the Board.
She shared the belief of others in the commercial fishing industry that Johnstone had a bias in favor of sport fishing interests. And she said he could sometimes be abrasive and make witnesses before the Board uncomfortable with his probing questions.
The closest thing she ever saw to anything remotely sexual, however, was Johnstone offering a woman a comment that, “Oh, you look nice,” she said.
She and other Board staff, she added, sometimes went to dinner with Board members after long days at work and sometimes had drinks together, but there were no sexual overtones.
“That was never my experience,” she said.
“I can’t speak for everyone,” Brito-Jenkins said, but admitted she found Spohnholz’s allegations “troubling.”
Had there been a problem, Brito-Jenkins added, she wouldn’t have hesitated to go to either of the bosses for whom she worked to ask for help. She said she had faith in both and described them as do some others who’ve worked for the past and present director.
“Monica (Wellard) would have gotten in his (Johnstone’s) face in a heart beat,” Brito-Jenkins said, while Glenn Haight, Wellard’s successor, would have handled the complaint in quieter, more “professional” manner to see that the problem was resolved.
Wellard is already on record saying that no one ever reported an incident of sexual harassment to her. If they had, she said, “I certainly would have done something about it.”
Haight, who took over for Wellard in 2013 on Monday said in a telephone interview that no sexual harassment was ever reported to him, that he saw none, and that if either had been the case he would have acted.
Over the phone, Haight sounded somewhat irritated to even be asked about the matter.
“If we received any accusations, we would follow procedure,” he said, but there were never any accusations. He said he couldn’t even recall a mention of sexual harassment coming up in casual conversations with his staff.
The Board support section of Fish and Game is small. Counting regional office personnel who work for both the Board of Fish and the Board of Game, which regulates wildlife management in the state, “we have a staff of 11 people total,” Haight said.
Only three or four of those employees would be in attendance at an ordinary meeting of the Board of Fish or the Board of Game, he added. Outside of the Board meetings, which take up 25 to 35 days per year, he said, he has regular contact with Board members but Board member contacts with other staff are limited.
The Board section staff works for Fish and Game, not the Board. Board members do not have offices at Fish and Game. There is no boss-employee relationship between Board members and staff, and the ability of Board members to influence the careers of Fish and Game employees appear limited to non-existent.
A Johnstone recommendation to UFA to hire Leach might have done her more harm than good while Johnstone opposition to the hire would be more likely to help than hurt.
These things make the #metoo accusations only more confounding as does Spohnholz’s statement that “more than two” women were sexually harassed. Baird could not explain whether that meant three or four or more.
“All I can say is more than two,” he said Monday. “As (Spohnholz) described it, it’s multiple women.”
Any further details, he said, would have to come from Spohnholz, who isn’t talking.