'Fish politics at its worst': Rejected appointee responds to sexual harassment allegations

Karl Johnstone's appointment to the Board of Fisheries is rejected.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A former superior court judge and previous chair of the Board of Fisheries whose appointment to that Board failed to be confirmed says the legislature crossed a line in allowing allegations of sexual harassment to influence voting without looking into the claim.

Karl Johnstone's nomination was already expected to be close after two animated hearings focusing on his past service and outlook on fisheries management. Johnstone says he expected to be confirmed to the board with a margin of around three votes.

Last Wednesday, just before the Legislature was set to vote on his confirmation, Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D - Anchorage, voiced new allegations of sexual harassment against Johnstone. Spohnholz says more than two women who worked for the Board of Fisheries contacted her office about his behavior. The Legislature initially tabled his confirmation vote, but ended up rejecting his appointment at the end of the night.

"When somebody at the last minute or two before a vote comes up with some sort of claim that so far there seems to be no evidence to support whatsoever, that crosses a line in my opinion," Johnstone said. "Several legislators made it clear that they changed their vote because of this."

Spohnholz said that the women did not come forward publicly for fear of retribution.

"I think folks came forward to me because they were concerned that somebody that had a track record of treating people that they work with in a disrespectful manner, they wanted to make sure that the person wouldn't be a person of authority over others again in the future," Spohnholz said.

Johnstone says that if the claims had substance, they should have been investigated.

"First of all, they should not have been brought up at all since they were not substantiated in any way, shape or form. They shouldn't be used to make an important decision, in my opinion," Johnstone said. "If there's something to support these allegations, come back in, report on that, take a vote. If there's nothing to support them, if they're all made out of whole cloth, report that back then take the vote," Johnstone said. "It's fish politics at its very worst I think."

Spohnholz declined to give any further detail about the allegations the women brought to her, but the representative stood by her decision.

"Alaska is one big small town and the news media and the legislative process, neither of which are really suited well to addressing challenging issues like sexual harassment and I feel like going into any details could risk disclosure of personally identifying information, so I'm just not comfortable talking about that," Spohnholz. "The legislative process is one where we have to sometimes make decisions in a fairly tight time frame with the best available information we had at the time. There just wasn't time to do more thorough vetting of this."

A spokesperson for Gov. Mike Dunleavy says that Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vicent-Lang has, "looked into these matters and found no evidence that was reported within ADFG to support the claims made by Rep. Spohnholz."

As for the position left vacant by Johnstone's failed confirmation, Dunleavy's spokesperson Matt Shuckerow said the administration does not plan on filling vacancies until after the regular session for a variety of reasons, including statutes pertaining to the legislative process and the unlikelihood the Legislature would hold another session to take up appointments.

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