Judge denies contempt motion against USDA in sex harassment suit

A federal judge on Friday declined to hold Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in contempt of court for the department's slow compliance with the settlement terms of an eight-year-old sexual harassment class-action lawsuit at the Forest Service.

"He did say we have shortcomings, but he said that our shortcomings are not substantial enough to warrant a contempt finding," said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the Forest Service's Region 5 in California.

Judge D. Lowell Jensen asked that lawyers for both sides of the case report to him by Dec. 5 on efforts to eliminate reprisals against people who have lodged sexual harassment allegations at the department and to create a database tracking workplace complaints. He also extended the settlement agreement until Jan. 8, 2006, a year beyond the original expiration date.

The ruling stemmed from a contempt of court motion filed June 4 by lawyers for the class, which alleged that department officials were sluggish in implementing the mandated reforms.

"He had some problems with our database and he was concerned about our progress against retaliation," Mathes said Monday. "We do need to a do a better job of reporting and tracking things, and we realize that, but everybody from the regional forester on down feels very strongly that our workforce has to operate in an atmosphere of mutual respect."

The judge's ruling is the latest action in the harassment case, which began in December 1995 when Forest Service employees Ginelle O'Connor and Lesa Donnelly sued the department for sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation. The lawsuit, which began with 50 women in 1995, was certified as a class action in March 1997. Eventually the class included 5,800 women.

The case was settled in 2001. The Agriculture Department agreed to create special civil rights enforcement programs and personnel training programs, and to set up an Equal Employment Opportunity processing unit to deal with sexual harassment and hostile workplace environment claims. The settlement also required the agency to create a monitoring council that included a class member, an agency employee and a neutral third party. In March 2003, the monitoring council issued its first report, which claimed the department had yet to implement many of the changes required under the settlement.

On Monday, Donnelly said she was happy with the judge's ruling.

"The judge realized that reprisal had to be dealt with, had to be corrected, because it's so severe in Region 5. And now we know that the court is watching and asking for a report," Donnelly said. "So we're happy about that."

Donnelly will join a group of Agriculture Department employee advocates who are scheduled to meet with White House officials on Thursday to discuss improving civil rights at the department.

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