ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — An Alaska lawmaker who has been accused by several women of inappropriate behavior refused to resign on Tuesday amid calls for him to leave his post from leaders of the House majority and the head of the state Democratic Party.
State Rep. Dean Westlake, who is recovering from heart surgery, said he sought the counsel of friends, family, native leaders, elders, and God when making his decision to remain in office. He announced his decision in a statement, and was confirmed by his staff.
"I want to once again apologize to any woman whom I have made uncomfortable with either my actions or words. I never intended to hurt anyone, but I understand now that I have. I am truly sorry for that, and I want to thank anyone who came forward. Doing so required strength and bravery," he said.
No one from the House majority was able to comment Tuesday evening, and a message left with the state Democratic party was not immediately returned.
He vowed to become an ally and supporter of women moving forward. "I am committed to being better and to changing my behavior. I will learn from this experience," he said.
His announcement came after a former legislative aide, Olivia Garrett, complained last spring to House leadership about two instances of unwelcome physical contact from the Democrat at work-related functions outside the Capitol. Garrett decided to go public after she said no one informed her how the matter was handled.
Six other female aides then came forward to accuse Westlake of acting inappropriately toward them or making them feel uncomfortable, the Anchorage Daily News reported Friday. The paper said those women asked not to be identified.
Garrett, who did not work for Westlake, told The Associated Press on Friday that she recently filed a human resources complaint against Westlake and said it was being investigated.
"These allegations have become a confidential personnel matter, and in respecting the process I cannot discuss the details," Westlake said.
Garrett initially complained last March in a letter to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck.
She provided the AP with a copy of a letter, in which she details the physical contact, including one incident in which she says Westlake grabbed her buttocks.
Edgmon, a Democrat from Dillingham, said he spoke with Westlake after receiving the complaint in March. Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, declined to comment on the matter to the AP, saying it was a personnel issue.
Sexual misconduct allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein in October have led women around the country to come forward with claims against powerful men in politics, entertainment and media.
The Alaska Legislature recently put together a panel to recommend changes to its policy on sexual and other workplace harassment.
After Garrett went public, Westlake issued a statement saying he welcomed a review and updated sexual harassment policies.
"I firmly believe that everyone deserves a safe, healthy, and professional working environment," he said. "I sincerely apologize if an encounter with me has made anyone uncomfortable. That has certainly never been my intent."
Leaders of the House majority coalition on Friday called for Westlake to resign after the other women came forward.
A statement from majority leaders, released by Edgmon, said the coalition, largely comprised of Democrats, takes seriously its obligation that everyone who works in the Capitol should feel safe and respected.
"In light of recent reports of inappropriate behavior related to his position in the Legislature, House leadership believes Representative Dean Westlake should resign from the office his constituents sent him to Juneau to represent," the statement said.
The chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, Casey Steinau, said Westlake should immediately step down.
"There is no place where sexual misconduct, harassment, or sexual assault is acceptable," Steinau said in a statement. "Elected officials, regardless of party must be held accountable."
Westlake is a freshman lawmaker from the western Alaska community of Kotzebue. He narrowly won the Democratic primary over incumbent state Rep. Benjamin Nageak of Barrow in August 2016. Nageak challenged the results, claiming election workers botched the election, which Westlake won by eight votes.
Nageak won at the state court level, but the Alaska Supreme Court reversed that decision and awarded Westlake the primary election. He was unopposed in the general election
Associated Press writer Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, contributed to this report.