Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy is now eyeing his next appointment to the Alaska Board of Fisheries with the dust stirred up around one of his last appointments still far from settled in the wake of a sexual harassment claim.
The Alaska Legislature on April 17 voted down the reappointment to the Board of retired Anchorage Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone after Anchorage Rep. Ivy Spohnholz lobbed a #metoo bombshell into the proceedings.
Spohnholz said on the floor of a joint session of the House and Senate that “more than two” women who worked for the Board told her that Johnstone sexually harassed them. There was, and has been, no confirmation of those claims.
Johnstone was provided no hearing to defend himself against the accusation before his confirmation was blocked. It is widely believed the sexual harassment accusation was unleashed after Johnstone opponents concluded they didn’t have the votes to block the confirmation of a man who’d run into a firestorm of opposition from commercial fishermen accusing him of being biased in favor of sport fishermen.
Here’s what has happened since in the country’s biggest fishing state where major political battles have regularly erupted around fish:
- Former Commissioner of Fish and Game Cora Campbell, a woman who was regularly in attendance with Johnstone at BOF meetings, has added her name to the list of women saying they were not sexually harassed. And she said in an email to craigmedred.news that “no one reported concerns to me about Karl Johnstone and sexual harassment, and I never observed such behavior.” Campbell said that if she’d seen, heard or been told anything, she would have investigated and acted. Campbell is now the CEO of an Alaska fish processing company.
- Spohnholz in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News has revised downward to “two women” the alleged victims, but has not responded to a query asking why.
- Gov. Mike Dunleavy has offered an apology to Johnstone for the way the 78-year-old jurist was treated by the Legislature. Dunleavy thanked Johnstone for volunteering and wrote that he was “dismayed by the way our elected officials behaved during your confirmation.” In the letter, Dunleavy accused legislators of “character assassination” and “disenfranchisement (of) real victims of serious crimes.”
- No women have emerged to say they were harassed by Johnstone.
- Spohnholz has said on the House floor that she made a mistake in leveling the accusations against Johnstone and admitted that “due process” ideals were violated. But she added her feeling that she had to go public because the Legislature has no process for secret hearings to consider accusations against gubernatorial appointees.
- Spohnholz has continued to leave undefined the nature of the complaints against Johnstone. As of this time – in a situation where words matter – no one has a clue to what Johnstone is supposed to have said. Johnstone has said he never sexually harassed anyone, but the standards for verbal harassment – the sole charge of which Spohnholz publicly accused Johnstone – can vary widely from the most offensive sexual statements to something less. A legislator in Oregon is facing sexual harassment charges after being accused by two interns of regularly referring to them as “little girl,” “my baby lawyer” and “sexy,” as reported by The Daily Astorian.
- No one has reported hearing Johnstone using any such forms of demeaning language in talking to any state employees. Craigmedred.news has been able to contact four of the women who worked closely around Johnstone when he was on the BOF, including Campbell and the woman who was the supervisor of the BOF section. None have reported hearing anything they thought hinted at sexual harassment or of hearing of it from co-workers.
- Members of the House Republican minority have tried and failed to obtain a “Sense of the House” vote condemning Spohnholz’s decision to drop the #metoo bomb. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, refused to allow discussion of the request and sent it off to committee. Republicans are said to be considering an effort to get the House to vote to censure Spohnholz, but they appear to lack the votes to do anything.
- The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has partially substantiated one Spohnholz statement. During a hearing of the House Resources Committee to consider appointees to the BOF, Spohnholz told Johnstone she didn’t quite understand why there was “so much objection to your appointment,” and admitted she didn’t know much about state fisheries. “I do some personal-use fishing, but fishing is not my background,” she added. A freedom of information request to Fish and Game confirmed Spohnholz is connected to the popular, personal-use dipnet fisheries on the Kenai Peninsula. The agency reported her husband, “Troy Bowler held Upper Cook Inlet Personal Use Permits in 2013 (with family size of 5), 2015 (with family size of 5), and 2017 (with family size of 4). A scanned image of Mr. Bowler’s 2013 permit lists an ‘Ivy’ as a family member. We do not have scanned images of the permits for 2015 and 2017 as harvest was reported online and we don’t retain household name data in that process.”
How many fish the Bowler family caught is not subject to a FOI request, according to the state agency. The personal-use fishery has a seasonal limit of 25 salmon for the permit holder plus 10 for each additional family member. The Bowlers would have had a maximum limit of 55 to 65 salmon per year over the course of the three years they were legally permitted to participate in the fishery.
Many commercial fishermen believe these limits allow urban Alaskans way more fish than most of them need. They don’t like the fishery because it competes with them for salmon.
The personal-use fishery and sport fisheries in streams and rivers around the perimeter of Cook Inlet were at the heart of the dispute over the reappointment of Johnstone – a former Board chairman – to the BOF.
Johnstone favored shifting some of the Inlet’s salmon harvest from the commercial fishery to noncommercial fisheries that help feed those living in the state’s urban core and support the Kenai Peninsula’s booming tourism economy.
Because of that, the United Fishermen of Alaska, one of the state’s most powerful political lobbies, vowed to block his appointment. How to fairly allocate Cook Inlet salmon harvests between commercial and noncommercial users has for decades been the most difficult task the volunteer, regulatory BOF faces.
There is quite simply no perfectly fair answer to the allocation issue. The state has no written guidelines to aid Board members in making allocation decisions. And every special interest group involved in the regular Cook Inlet fish wars can make a valid claim on the fish.
The personal-use dipnet fishery offers easy access to the salmon resource for the approximately five of every seven Alaskans living in the Anchorage metro area or on the Peninsula. The fishery is similar to a federally mandated subsistence fishery which guarantees rural Alaskans priority access to fish.
Subsistence fisheries once existed in the Inlet but were eliminated by the BOF in order to get rid of the priority, which restrained state management options. Commercial fishermen feared a priority was destined to year-by-year erode their share of the catch. They have similar and continuing fears about the personal-use and sport fisheries.
They say it is not fair to reduce commercial catches in order to grow personal-use and sport fisheries. In testimony before the House Resources Committee, Johnstone said he understood that and felt for commercial fishermen, but he added that times change and people must adapt.
Economic studies have indicated that some of the Inlet’s salmon might have far more value as a state resource if caught in sport fisheries than if caught in commercial fisheries. Tourists will pay thousands of a dollars for the chance to catch a few salmon in the tributary streams of the Susitna River at the head of the Inlet. A few salmon caught and sold commercially are worth less than $100.
Under Johnstone’s tenure, the BOF spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get Susitna salmon past commercial nets in the Inlet in order to help boost tourism businesses and satisfy anglers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The sprawling Borough just north of Anchorage is the state’s fastest growing area.
Johnstone’s efforts angered the powerful United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), which worked hard to help Independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell in 2014.
When Walker took office, he promptly told Johnstone that the judge could forget about being reappointed to the Board, and Johnstone then resigned, saying he thought it best that whoever was going to be named to replace him have plenty of time to study up on the state’s complicated fishery issues.
Walker subsequently named Inlet commercial fisherman and former UCIDA executive director Roland Maw to fill Johnstone’s seat. The appointment did not last long. Maw resigned when it was discovered he was claiming to be a resident of Montana as well as of Alaska.
Maw is scheduled to go on trail in Juneau next month on charges of felony theft for claiming Alaska Personal Fund Dividends while also claiming to be a resident of Montana. Only Alaskans qualify for PFDs.
Despite Maw’s PFD problem, Walker stood by him. Maw was among the UCIDA members meeting with Walker in 2018 as the incumbent governor tried to come up with a plan for defusing Inlet fish wars. Walker was then running for re-election and facing considerable opposition from supporters of personal-use and sport fishing.
Walker withdrew from the governor’s race after dismissing his running mate, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, for allegedly propositioning the daughter of a woman with whom the married Mallott had been having an affair.
Spohnholz represents an East Anchorage House District that strongly supported Walker in the 2014 gubernatorial election. She handily won re-election last year after a campaign highlighting her success in boosting funding for education, public safety and health care.
Fishery management, a regularly contentious issue in many areas of the state, did not come up during the campaign.