- Associated Press - Friday, January 12, 2018

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Alaska legislators who do not take training to prevent sexual harassment could face an ethics complaint after a legislative ethics committee agreed Friday to make the training mandatory for this year.

The leaders of the House and Senate Rules Committee previously told lawmakers and staff members they must participate in training. There was a threat, at least on the House side, that members who did not comply would lose staff.

But House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, a committee member, said that and other potential sanctions are subjective and it would be better for a jury of public members to aid in any actions. The Select Committee on Legislative Ethics has five public members.

“And we have many people that have fallen victim because of, I believe, there wasn’t training last year, and I think it’s wrong for someone to refuse to go to this next training class,” said Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat.

Allegations of inappropriate behavior toward female aides, including allegedly grabbing one woman’s buttocks, last month forced the resignation of Rep. Dean Westlake, a freshman Democrat.

Leaders of the House majority coalition, composed mostly of Democrats, and the head of the state Democratic party called for Westlake to step down as allegations mounted.

Westlake, in resigning, apologized to the women “for the pain I have caused” and to his constituents.

Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson of North Pole has called for a third-party investigation into how the allegations against Westlake were handled before taking the training. Friday’s decision by the ethics committee “doesn’t change my stance whatsoever,” she said, adding that she is willing to risk a potential ethics violation to keep attention on the issue.

Dennis “Skip” Cook was one of two ethics committee members who broke with the rest of the panel Friday. He said he wasn’t against the training but said members had not yet seen what it entailed.

The committee will have to monitor and perhaps take action against individuals who do not attend training, when the committee already has its hands full with its existing workload, Cook said.

“And really we’re just being borrowed as a tool to make this mandatory,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers have the ability to mandate such training on their own.

Doug Gardner, director of Legislative Legal Services, recommended in a memo to ethics committee administrator Jerry Anderson that training about workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment, be included in mandatory ethics training “as a matter of risk management” for the Legislature.

Anderson said in an interview that a complaint could be filed against someone who did not take the training.

Meanwhile Friday, House Rules Committee Chairwoman Gabrielle LeDoux filed legislation that would require that violations of laws or legislative policies on harassment and discrimination be referred to the ethics committee for review.

The bill also calls for creating a personnel office in the Legislative Affairs Agency that would be responsible for investigating claims and determining if there was a violation to refer.

LeDoux, in a statement, said existing legislative policy, which is being reworked, lets members of House and Senate leadership address alleged policy violations. She said the ethics committee “is a less-political body with representation from the public.”

“I am confident that enabling the ethics committee to review violations and deal with the guilty sends a clear message that harassment in any form will not be tolerated in the Alaska Legislature,” the Anchorage Republican said.

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