The Alaska Legislature approved all but one of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s four appointments to the Alaska Board of Fisheries Wednesday. Legislators tabled appointing former board member and chairman Karl Johnstone largely due allegations that he sexually harassed Board of Fish staff and unethically coerced fellow board members into taking particular positions.
Lawmakers later voted not to appoint Johnstone to the board.
On Monday evening, the House Resources and Fisheries committees heard hours of testimony both for and against Johnstone. Most of Johnstone’s support came from sport fishermen and industry groups while commercial fishing organizations staunchly opposed his appointment, arguing his past actions suggest a fundamental bias against the commercial sector.
Johnstone acknowledged his confirmation would be controversial before public testimony began.
“I’m told that I’m accessible, polite and direct. I will listen to everybody. At the end of the day, I’m a very good advocate for the resource,” he said. “My opponents will say I coerced, threatened and I’m disrespectful to the ADF&G staff, the public and my fellow board members.”
While Johnstone said the allegations are untrue, Kodiak Republican Louise Stutes said several constituents refused to submit written comments for fear of retribution.
“This is based on their personal experiences with you as a past board member. However, I did get one email today in writing and I will just read you a small portion of what was said to me,” she explained. “‘Karl personally tried to pressure me into accepting KRSA’s proposal saying that if I didn’t, his friends would put me out of business.’”
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association or KRSA is a sport fishing advocacy group based in Soldotna.
During Wednesday’s joint session of the House and Senate, Rep. Ivy Sponholz said her office had received more serious allegations.
“In the last 24-hours, more than two women have reached out to my office, people who worked for the Board of Fish when Johnstone was previously on the Board of Fish to share concerns about his behavior,” she said. “They each described inappropriate sexual comments, which created a hostile work environment for them repeatedly.”
Fairbanks Sen. John Coghill objected to lawmakers considering the allegations as part of Johnstone’s confirmation process, but others like Sen. Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage, who said he was initially going to support Johnstone, asked to table a vote on his confirmation.
“I think Mr. Johnstone has a right to be heard on what has been said. We can’t do that in this process. The only way we can do that is if we table this hearing and reopen his hearings,” he added.
When reached by phone shortly after the Legislature tabled his confirmation, Johnstone declined to comment.
Lawmakers later returned to Johnstone’s confirmation and declined to appoint him to the board in a 33-24 vote.