House speaker declines to speculate on Westlake’s future

In this Jan. 17, 2017 photo, state Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue, talks with another legislator during a break in the opening session of the Alaska Legislature in Juneau. (Mark Thiessen | The Associated Press File)

An Alaska lawmaker has not responded to calls for him to resign amid allegations of inappropriate behavior, leaving House and Democratic party leadership waiting for his response.

 

Seven women have accused Rep. Dean Westlake, a Democrat from Kotzebue, of inappropriate behavior or unwanted advances. The complaints prompted the House leadership and chairwoman of the state Democratic party on Friday to call on Westlake to resign.

But the freshman lawmaker, who is recovering from surgery, hasn’t responded, leaving the process in limbo as lawmakers prepare to return to the Capitol on Jan. 16.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon on Monday declined to speculate on any possible next moves until Westlake responds to calls for his resignation, a spokesman for the Dillingham Democrat said.

An aide to Westlake indicated in a text to The Associated Press that Westlake might release a statement later Monday, but didn’t indicate what it would say.

If Westlake were to resign, the process of replacing him begins with the local Democratic party choosing three candidates, said Alaska Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley. The names would be submitted to Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, who would choose the person to take the seat. State law requires a seat to be filled within 30 days of a vacancy.

House Minority Leader Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican, takes issue with how the matter has been handled.

“I think the easiest thing for the House Democrats would be to have Dean Westlake resign so this issue could go away,” she said. “But I believe that everybody deserves a fair process.

“We should investigate those claims, and if Dean Westlake believes that he did something wrong he absolutely should resign,” Millett said. An investigation should go forward, she said.

If Westlake doesn’t resign, the House majority could distance itself from him. In the past, there have been consequences for lawmakers running afoul of their caucuses or leadership.

In May, the Alaska House voted to take the highly unusual step of censuring Rep. David Eastman, a Republican from Wasilla, over comments he made suggesting there are women in Alaska who try to get pregnant to get a “free trip to the city” for abortions.

In 2015, Rep. Lora Reinbold of Eagle River was kicked out of the GOP caucus when she refused to vote for the budget crafted by fellow Republicans.

Olivia Garrett, a former legislative aide who did not work for Westlake, complained in a letter last March to Edgmon and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck about two instances of inappropriate contact with Westlake. She decided to go public recently after she said no one followed up with her on her letter and in hopes of forcing change within the Legislature.

Westlake issued a statement last Thursday saying he apologized if an encounter with him had “made anyone uncomfortable.”

On Friday, The Anchorage Daily News reported six other female aides said Westlake acted inappropriately toward them or made them feel uncomfortable leading officials to call for his resignation. The paper said the women asked to not be identified.

Millett said her caucus is working on an internal policy for complaints that will not involve Edgmon, Tuck or House Rules Chair Gabrielle LeDoux, saying she lacks confidence in their ability to handle complaints.

She points to the handling of the Westlake matter and allegations of inappropriate behavior by state Sen. David Wilson toward a female House aide. Wilson has called for the public release of a report and video that he says clear him of wrongdoing.

Edgmon said he felt torn between pursuing the Wilson matter through the Legislative Council and respecting the aide’s wishes that it be kept private and not politicized.

Millett said members of her caucus will be designated to help individuals who have a complaint in which the Legislature’s human resources office should be involved.

Millett is a member of the subcommittee charged with recommending updates to the Legislature’s policy for sexual or other workplace harassment.

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