Almost a week after Alaska Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, accused a retired Anchorage Superior Court judge of sexual harassment in a successful effort to sink his appointment to the state Board of Fisheries, she tried to roll back the accusation with the argument #metoo cases are too important to be ignored but too messy to be discussed in public.
Spohnholz offered no apology to 77-year-old Karl Johnstone during her speech on the floor of the state House on Wednesday, and defended her earlier accusations by saying “I stand by the actions that I made, that I took at the time, because I think I made them with the best available information I could at the time.”
She complained that she was compelled to do what she did because the state Legislature has “no mechanism” for handling complaints of sexual harassment in cases such as this. She failed to mention that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, where the women who were allegedly harassed allegedly worked, has well-established policies for handling such issues and says it offers strong protection against retribution to any employee who brings forward a sexual harassment complaint.
Why Spohnholz didn’t simply tell the unidentified women in question to a file a complaint with the agency and guarantee them she would have their backs is unclear. Spohnholz has not returned phones calls in response to messages left with her staff or answered questions sent her by email.
Johnstone was up for reappointment to a Board on which he served from 2008 to 2015. Fish and Game officials said no one ever filed a sexual harassment claim against Johnston while he was on the Board, and various women who worked for the Board when Johnstone served said they were not harassed and saw no signs of sexual harassment.
Johnstone’s appointment became highly controversial after the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA), arguably the state’s most powerful political interest group, vowed to block his confirmation because he had in the past favored altering salmon harvests in Cook Inlet where commercial fishermen annually catch 75 percent or more of the fish.
The Inlet washes up against the Anchorage metro area now home to more than half the state’s population. Johnstone argued the time has come to begin shifting some of the commercial catch to resident-only, personal-use dipnetters in the name of food security and anglers in the name of supporting growth in a vibrant, Kenai Peninsula tourism industry and a struggling Matanuska-Susitna Valley tourism business hampered by a salmon shortage.
Commercial fishermen viewed any shift in harvest away from the commercial fishery as the simple theft of their fish.
Because of the allocation issue, Spohnholz called the Johnstone appointment “particularly contentious, probably the most contentious since statehood.”
And that was before she firebombed the confirmation process.
Last week during a floor session of the House and Senate called to confirm various appointees of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Spohnholz announced she had been contacted by “more than two” women who complained of being sexually harassed by Johnstone. This week, the number shrank; Spohnholz told Anchorage Daily News reporter James Brooks that the complaints involved two women.
Spohnholz has not explained where the “more than” women went, and Brooks gave no indication that he asked Spohnholz what led her to reduce the number of women making complaints. The ADN story also neglected to mention that Fish and Game had no reports of sexual harassment against Johnstone while he was on the Board.
The women in question, Spohnholz said last week, work for the Board Section of Fish and Game. It is a small group with 11 employees, most of them women. The Fish Board members themselves are unpaid volunteers who set state fishery regulations. They have no control over the Board employees who work for the Section’s executive director.
What Johnstone is alleged to have said or done is unknown. Spohnholz has refused to offer any details. Wednesday she made a pitch for the Legislature to develop a policy that would allow secret committee meetings to discuss gubernatorial appointments if questions of sexual harassment arose again.
She also refused to back away from her earlier criticisms of Johnston, stating that he was “someone who in my opinion doesn’t have the character to, ah, deserve the responsibility to have the authority to make decisions over other people’s livelihoods.”
Given that Fish Board has no power whatsoever to hire or fire state employees, it has no say over the livelihoods of those working for the state. But Board decisions can affect the livelihoods of commercial fishermen across Alaska, and Johnstone’s reappointment would have put him in a position to make decisions that could affect the incomes of commercial fishermen in the Inlet, most of whom are part-time operators with other jobs.
Spohnholz did concede that in the wake of her accusations “there are some legitimate concerns about due process that have been raised…I share those concerns. I think that we need to make sure that we don’t have a system where people can be accused of anything without the opportunity to address them.”
Many questions still surround the harassment charge. Here are those that were emailed to Spohnholz today and went unanswered:
1.) Were there “more than two” women involved as you originally said on the floor, or were there only “two women” as you are now reported to say in the Daily News?
2.) Did you speak to the women directly or were their accounts relayed to you?
3.) How were these accounts vetted? Did the women provide general descriptions of what happened and when and where it happened? Did the incidents happen during the 25 to 35 days the Board meets every year or after or before those Board meetings, or did Johnstone approach the women when the Board wasn’t meeting?
4.) Did the sexual harassment take the form of physical contact or was it wholly verbal?
5.) Why did none of the women report the harassment to their supervisors in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or do you believe agency officials are lying when they say there are no such reports?
6.) Before publicly leveling the accusations against Johnstone, did you contact Fish and Game to ask whether any complaints had ever been filed against Johnstone?
7.) Since you told the Daily News you learned of the harassment complaints a day before you announced them, did you make any effort to contact Johnstone to ask him about any of his actions before, during or after Board of Fish meetings?
8.) Since the women involved apparently did not report this sexual harassment to their supervisors at Fish and Game, do you believe there could exist within the agency a climate of fear that prevents women from reporting sexual harassment, and have you asked the governor to investigate that possibility?