For Fansler, Assault Allegations Mark A Swift Change In Fortune
Bethel State Representative Zach Fansler did not appear to go to work on Monday. When he didn't attend the House floor session this morning, KTOO reporter Andrew Kitchenman stopped by the representative's Juneau office to see if he was there. The door was locked and the light was on inside, but no one answered when Kitchenman knocked. Over the past 48 hours, Fansler has been accused of assaulting a women in his hotel room, and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon is demanding that he resign.
The Juneau Empire reports that Fansler was intoxicated and slapped the woman repeatedly, rupturing her eardrum, when she denied his sexual advances. The allegations mark a swift reversal in fortune for Fansler, a freshman Democrat whose election helped shift the balance of power in the House.
The woman who Fansler allegedly assaulted was in an on-and-off-again relationship with him. In an extensive interview with Juneau Empire reporter James Brooks, who broke the story, she says that she and Fansler were drinking together on January 13 before the alleged attack.
"From what I'm told, he was drinking heavily and so she escorted him back up to his hotel room," Brooks said. "Then they were kissing and she was a little reluctant. She was trying to put him to bed, and she says that he was interested in something more."
The woman says she tried to leave the hotel room. "That's when she says he hit her," said Brooks, "pulled her hair." She started crying and got up to leave. Fansler got up too. “He grabbed me so I couldn’t leave,” she told Brooks. She finally escaped Fansler’s hotel room, she says, after trying to get out for almost an hour.
The Juneau Empire corroborated the woman’s story with her medical records and a series of texts that she exchanged with Fansler. The day after the alleged attack Fansler texted the woman an apology and asked her out to dinner and a movie. She told him that wouldn’t be a good idea. Her ear was throbbing, so she went to Juneau Urgent Care. According to medical forms provided to the Juneau Empire, she was admitted for “ear trauma with possible TM rupture.” Medical staff confirmed that her eardrum was ruptured at a follow up appointment later that week.
That’s when the woman went to the police and got in touch with reporter James Brooks. "She said that there tends to be a sense of downplaying," he said. "You want to say, ‘Oh it wasn't that bad; it couldn't have been as bad as I remember.’ And she concluded after thinking for a while that yes, it was serious."
"She felt that it shouldn’t be hidden," he added.
Local police and the Department of Law are investigating the alleged assault, and the Juneau Police Department is expected to release a police report on the incident later this week. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon swiftly called for Fansler to step down, only a month after he demanded that another member of his own caucus, Representative Dean Westlake of Kotzebue, resign due to sexual harassment allegations that were later substantiated. According to Fansler’s former aide Benjamin Anderson-Agimuk, House leadership also stripped Fansler of his legislative staff, who have been reassigned to the House Rules Committee.
KYUK could not reach Fansler for comment, but his attorney, Wallace Tetlow of Anchorage, says that his client is not planning to resign. "We deny these allegations. They’re not true," he said. "And if any charges are filed we’ll defeat them in court."
When the woman told Fansler how badly she’d been injured, he apologized. “I’m embarrassed and ashamed of myself,” he wrote in text messages obtained by the Juneau Empire.
He also attributed his behavior to “BDSM kink,” which has elicited condemnation from Alaska’s alternative communities. Alaska Center for Alternative Lifestyles founder Sarha Shaubach says that BDSM revolves around communication and consent. “What he did,” she said of Fansler, “was violence.”
Considered a “rising star” in the Alaska State House, Fansler is a freshman legislator known for his progressive politics and devotion to his district. He’s also an attorney and former University of Alaska math teacher who’s lived in Bethel for years. Prior to his election, he worked at KYUK.
Fansler’s district has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country, and Fansler has spent years fighting against it. He previously worked as a legal advocate for the Tundra Women’s Coalition, a Bethel women’s shelter, and managed the shelter’s Teen’s Acting Against Violence program. In an interview with KYUK last month he applauded Representative Dean Westlake’s resignation.
"We need to, as Alaskans, to be working together to promote a safe culture," he said. "We have the worst statistics in the nation and they’re especially bad in our rural region for sexual assault and domestic violence, things like that. And if we can’t clean that up, we as a people need to really reevaluate what we’re doing."
Bethel community members have voiced concerns about Fansler’s drinking in the past. When KYUK hosted a live debate for the district’s house primary in 2016, several residents requested that we ask Fansler about his alcohol use. Former KYUK reporter Adrian Wagner asked Fansler about it directly.
"We’ve received some concerns from community members on your relationship with alcohol," said Wagner. "How would you like to respond to those concerns?"
"I think that there’s always a lot that people struggle with when it comes to the alcohol issue in this town," said Fansler. "And I think it’s something that I think is very important that we work as a community towards it."
"I just want to make sure," said Wagner. "These community concerns were not about your alcohol policy so much as your personal alcohol use. And they were questions regarding that. Can you respond to that?"
"I certainly drink alcohol, yes," said Fansler. "That’s true. I don’t think I’ve ever denied that. So."
The Tundra Women’s Coalition said that they are “terribly disappointed to hear these allegations” against Fansler. “We hope that Rep. Fansler, who has worked for and supported our programs and has been a role model for many, finds his 'place of turning around,’” Director Eileen Arnold wrote in a statement issued Saturday.
Fansler is fighting to stay in office. If he resigns or is expelled from the legislature, the razor-thin majority coalition that Fansler helped build in the State House will once again fall to only 21 members - the minimum needed to retain power.
Andrew Kitchenman and Anna Rose MacArthur contributed reporting.