Disputed June incident heightens sexual harassment concerns

State Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, addresses his colleagues in the Senate on June 16. A disputed incident outside of the House speaker’s chambers that involved Wilson has heightened concerns about sexual harassment in the Capitol. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The Legislative Council voted Tuesday to allow Sen. David Wilson to view a video of a June incident that’s heightened concerns about sexual harassment in the Capitol. The video won’t be made public, and it’s not clear whether Alaskans will ever know exactly what happened.

While the incident occurred in June, a controversy about it has emerged in recent weeks.  At the time of the incident, the House was debating the state budget. Members of the House majority were meeting in Dillingham Democratic Speaker Bryce Edgmon’s chambers when Wilson, a Wasilla Republican, walked up to the closed door.

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Juneau Empire reporter James Brooks recalled what happened next.

“What I remember is he had his ear up against the door as if he was listening in,” Brooks said. “A staffer came up and said. ‘You can’t do that, you need to get away.’”

Then, Brooks said Wilson moved his cellphone.

“To get the cellphone closer to the door, he put it between the staffer’s legs, and the staffer was wearing a skirt,” Brooks said. “Everyone in the vicinity who saw it was like, ‘Did that just happen? Did you see what I saw?’ And it was very strange and very sudden and abrupt and it didn’t last more than a few seconds and (I) really didn’t know what to make of it.”

Wilson remembered it differently: “That never occurred.”

Wilson has declined to give a detailed account of the incident. He said before Tuesday’s council meeting that he wanted to view security camera footage of the incident before giving his account.

“Before I give my official statement or comment upon these matters, I just want to make sure that I can always tell the truth, 100 percent the truth, as I … try not to mislead folks,” Wilson said. “I want to make sure that my statement can be as factual and accurate as possible before I make a statement upon that, because (in) no way, shape or form did I do what I was accused of, in terms of any type of sexual harassment.”

A second news reporter, KTVA’s Liz Raines, wrote in a statement that the staff member was visibly shaken as Wilson refused to move away from the door after she repeatedly asked him to. Raines said Wilson then placed the phone between the female staffer’s legs. Raines said she heard the staffer tell Wilson that the action was inappropriate. Raines said she she told him that her photographer would film what he was doing. Wilson left. Raines said the staff member was visibly shaking.

Wilson said Raines’ account is inaccurate.

The staff member did not file a report alleging harassment.

The incident wasn’t publicly reported until Anchorage resident Jeff Landfield discussed it in late October in one of the first posts of his political blog, the Alaska Landmine.

Landfield said the incident involving Wilson “was interesting, because while this (harassment), I think, is a bigger problem in the Capitol and has been for a long time, his situation happened to just be in public in front of several people – reporters – and also caught on camera.”

Revived interest in the incident led Anchorage Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux to reconsider the Legislature’s policy on sexual harassment and other workplace harassment. LeDoux is a Republican member of the mostly Democratic House majority.

“There have been rumors in this building about an incident which occurred, oh, I think it was in June, involving David Wilson, Sen. Wilson, you’ll remember Sen. Wilson – the same gentleman who slapped the reporter,” LeDoux said on Nov. 9.

LeDoux was referring to an earlier May incident in which Anchorage Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz said Wilson slapped him. Herz reported it to police; Wilson has said the interaction was playful.

LeDoux said the Senate could have taken formal action in response to the cellphone incident.

“They haven’t bothered to do anything when one of their own members, apparently, acted inappropriately,” LeDoux said.

Senate leaders also have supported revising the harassment policy, but haven’t publicly commented on the June incident.

Landfield requested access to the security camera footage. His request was denied. The Legislature’s policy bars public access to security video.

Wilson also requested access to the footage. The Legislative Council spent five hours in a meeting on Tuesday that was closed to the public, discussing Wilson’s request and other matters. Wilson attended.

The council voted to allow Wilson to view the video, as well as to authorize an internal investigation by the Legislature’s human resources manager.

Wilson immediately viewed the video, but declined on Tuesday to discuss what he saw. He said he would say more in the future, and expressed hope that he would be absolved of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

Landfield said the policy to bar the public from viewing the video is wrong.

“So, it’s a total situation where the fox is guarding the hen house,” Landfield said. “They don’t want embarrassing things to come out, because Democrat or Republican – it doesn’t matter – it makes them all look bad if something is recording that’s really bad within the Capitol. It’s a public building. It’s our building. It’s not their building.”

It’s not clear whether there will be a public report on the incident. Council members emphasized Tuesday that they wouldn’t comment on personnel matters. Juneau Democratic Rep. Sam Kito III chairs the council. Kito announced a new subcommittee to examine the harassment policy and report back to the council by early in the next legislative session, which begins in January.