Reps apologize after last-minute charges sink Johnstone nomination
Editor's note: This story has been updated with a list of names provided to the governor by the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association for the Marijuana Control Board.
Last Wednesday night was a strange one for the Legislature.
In a joint session of the House and Senate on April 17, the members confirmed most of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s nominees for state boards and commissions and all of his cabinet appointments. Seven appointees were not confirmed, though, with one not being voted on and six being rejected.
Although some were rejected based on their resumes, last-minute accusations of sexual harassment against one blew up the confirmation process.
Karl Johnstone, one of Dunleavy’s four nominees to the Board of Fisheries, was voted down 24-33 late that night. Earlier in the day, Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, surprised the members of the Legislature when she said during her comments that she had received texts from two women alleging sexually harassing behavior from Johnstone during his previous service on the board.
The allegations were not mentioned during multiple previous confirmation hearings, when hundreds of people testified for and against Johnstone based on his past service with the board.
After Spohnholz’s comments, the Legislature voted narrowly to table Johnstone’s nomination but brought it up again later that night, at which point he was voted down.
The allegations were a surprise to many in the room, and Spohnholz did not identify the two people who put them forward, nor were they identified later. No formal investigation was conducted into the allegations, and Johnstone did not have the opportunity to make comments on the record about any allegations.
Andy Hall, the president of setnetting group the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and a setnet fisherman, wrote public testimony to the Legislature opposing Johnstone’s nomination but said he was surprised by the process of the vote.
“It would’ve been cleaner if it was a vote based on the testimony provided to the Legislature about him,” he said. “That last incident may or may not have changed things. I don’t know.”
Hall and many others who testified to the Legislature against Johnstone offered anecdotes about intimidating behavior, both toward members of the public and toward Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff.
Commercial fishermen opposed Johnstone primarily because of a record of voting for sportfishing interests and his public commentary about the need to prioritize sportfishing and personal use fisheries over commercial fisheries, particularly in Cook Inlet.
The United Fishermen of Alaska, which does not usually oppose or endorse Board of Fisheries candidates, made a point to oppose Johnstone’s nomination because of his record.
The UFA did not have any connection to the allegations of sexual harassment that arose, wrote Executive Director Frances Leach in an email.
“We feel it was unfortunate timing that these allegations came out on the floor right before the vote as Mr. Johnstone was not provided time to respond,” she wrote.
However, according to UFA’s tracking, it didn’t change the ultimate outcome. Political organizations regularly keep track of how legislators have said they would vote in a record called a chit sheet, and UFA’s chit sheets made before the joint session showed that Johnstone would have been defeated anyway, Leach added.
In a statement to KTVA, Johnstone wrote that, “I believe that legitimate claims should be taken seriously and investigated. But let me be clear, I never made inappropriate sexual comments as stated by Rep. (Spohnholz) … I have thick skin and can take the hits, but it stings to know my four daughters have been hurt by this. My appointment to the Board of Fisheries is no longer at stake. My hope is that the truth comes out because the only thing at stake now is my reputation. All Alaskans should be concerned that the truth comes out. What happened to me can happen to anyone.”
The vote left a bad taste in some mouths, even among those who did not vote for Johnstone. Reps. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, and Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, issued a joint apology to Johnstone and another appointee, Bob Griffin, for what they said was inappropriate behavior from the Legislature impugning nominees’ characters without giving them a chance to respond.
Both Vance and Carpenter hail from the Kenai Peninsula, which is rife with fisheries conflict but home to most of Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen, who heavily opposed Johnstone’s nomination. Both are members of the House minority. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, and Spohnholz did not return calls for comment.
“Neither Rep. Carpenter nor I voted to confirm Mr. Johnstone to the Board of Fish, but our decisions had nothing to do with the unfair accusations levied against him on the floor,” Vance said in a statement. “To wildly throw out such offensive accusations with a clear intent to derail someone’s nomination is a sick political stunt, and I hope Mr. Johnstone and Mr. Griffin will accept our apologies on behalf of the body.”
Stiver shot down for Marijuana Board
In a cleaner, but narrower, vote, the Legislature also turned down the nomination of Vivian Stiver of Fairbanks to fill a seat on the Marijuana Control Board. Members of the cannabis industry heavily campaigned against her based on her past participation in a campaign to ban commercial marijuana activity in Fairbanks and her lack of background in the industry. She was to replace Brandon Emmett, also of Fairbanks, who had represented industry on the board since its inception in 2015.
The Legislature did confirm Dunleavy’s second appointment to the board, Alaska Wildlife Trooper Lt. Christopher Jaime of Soldotna.
Stiver was turned down in a 29-30 vote, one shy of what she needed for a majority. Carey Carrigan, the executive director of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, said the members of the industry were relieved at the vote and that “common sense prevailed.”
“We’re not trying to oppose people to oppose them,” he said. “(For) that second seat that everyone’s considering a public seat, I’d like to see two seats for industry on the board. To have two seats on the board representing industry on the board is not unreasonable.”
The industry group has assembled a group of suggested individuals for appointment to submit to Dunleavy’s administration, Carrigan said, aiming for a person with industry background and knowledge, he said. That list, submitted Wednesday, includes Bruce Schulte of Anchorage, Joseph Martin of Anchorage, Rebecca Rein of Houston, Michael White of Anchorage and Gary Evans of Fairbanks. Schulte served on the board from 2015–2016, including as chairman, until former governor Bill Walker dismissed him.
“I don’t know if there’s going to be any desire to accept our assistance,” he said. “I hope there is.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].