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Sexual Harassment Flap Tops Agenda of Alaska Lawmakers

March 02, 1993|DAVID HULEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANCHORAGE — The whole thing started with a 4:30 a.m. call to police.

An Alaska state senator, George Jacko, was on the line. He said he was a state legislator and wanted the police to help him get into the motel room of a female legislative aide. The dispatcher asked why.

"It's confidential," the senator said. "It has to do with state government . . . . It's kind of an urgent situation."

The skeptical dispatcher said there was nothing she could do. Jacko, who had been knocking on the motel door and trying to persuade the desk clerk to give him a key to the woman's room, "reeked of alcohol," the clerk said.

In the month since, the motel incident has mushroomed into a sexual harassment and government ethics scandal that has consumed much of the Legislature's time and energy. It has resulted in two police investigations, mounting protests from women's groups, continual haggling among legislators and calls for resignations.

Even in rough-and-tumble Alaska politics--where the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee went to prison in the early 1980s for bribery and a former governor survived an impeachment trial after corruption allegations in 1986--the latest flap has been especially ugly.

Within days of the motel incident, Jacko, a 33-year-old commercial fisherman from the tiny settlement of Pedro Bay, apologized for trying to use his influence to get into the woman's room. He has never explained exactly why he wanted to get into the room. However, he has since said he thinks he might have a drinking problem.

Then other allegations began to surface. A woman who worked as an aide to another legislator when Jacko was a member of the state House of Representatives gave authorities handwritten notes, purportedly written by Jacko, offering to change his vote on a bill in exchange for a date with her. She said Jacko, who is married and has three children, earlier made inappropriate advances.

Another woman told a newspaper that Jacko followed her home two years ago when she was a 17-year-old page. She said he forced his way into the house where she was staying and left only when her roommate appeared.

After the early morning incident at the motel, Jacko abruptly left the state for 10 days of "extensive alcohol and psychological treatment," Senate President Rick Halford said. Other lawmakers began suggesting that Jacko quit.

Still, the whole thing might not have become so controversial were it not for Jacko's unique position in the Legislature. Elected as a Democrat from a rural district the size of Oregon, Jacko angered his party by joining Republicans in a new coalition, giving the GOP a one-vote majority. He was appointed chairman of the Rules Committee.

Open warfare finally broke out: The Republican majority leader stood on the Senate floor and accused an Anchorage Democratic senator, by name, of using cocaine and beating a former girlfriend six years ago. The senator, who was never charged, denied the allegations and countered, on statewide television, that gambling influences were out to get him.

All of this follows passage last year, after years of arguing, of Alaska's first legislative ethics law. The law calls for creation of a special ethics committee to investigate allegations, with the power to expel members.

Legislators are now engaged in a bitter battle over who should sit on the Ethics Committee. One nominee was rejected after it was disclosed that she once faced federal charges of illegally trading in walrus ivory.

"This whole thing has become a political football and I think a lot of women in this state resent that," said Glenda Straube, spokeswoman for the Alaska Women's Lobby. "It's like the Legislature isn't mature enough to deal with all of this."

Women picketed the Capitol steps in Juneau, demanding lawmakers move more quickly to investigate sexual harassment charges.

The Alaska State Troopers and the state attorney general are investigating whether Jacko's notes offering to change his vote for a date--which he told another senator were part of a joke--violated laws against influence peddling. The Juneau police are looking into other harassment reports.

Jacko, meanwhile, returned to Juneau last week and has refused to discuss the allegations, except to say he has no plans to leave office.

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