Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., (left) and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said USDA must do more to address problems with sexual harassment.

Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., (left) and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said USDA must do more to address problems with sexual harassment. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Lawmakers Appalled at Forest Service Sexual Misconduct, Demand Firings

Agriculture's civil rights staffers claim improvements in long-standing culture clash.

Graphic details and emotional testimony from a female government firefighter at a Thursday hearing prompted House members to scold Agriculture Department officials for their handling of a decades-old culture of sexual harassment at the U.S. Forest Service.

The lawmakers’ impatience with agency managers’ claims that the numbers show improvements in investigations of complaints--ranging from gender discrimination to sexual assault--boiled over as both Republicans and Democrats demanded that perpetrators be fired.

“These cases should be reported to law enforcement and treated as a crime,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Instead they’re sent back to the agency, where, over coffee” managers tell perpetrators that they can “take all their benefits and retire, wink wink. Part of this is on Congress—we’re going to have some civil service reform!”

Tensions over gender issues among firefighters go back four decades at the Forest Service, through two consent decrees as the share of females performing the dangerous work has grown to 33 percent, the lawmakers noted. But to some the situation appears to have only worsened.

“It is long past time for the Forest Service to finally break its toxic cycle of sue, settle, and backslide,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the committee. “I wonder whether folks in the department will really hear us and will fight for whistleblowers,” he added, repeating an admonition that “no employee should ever feel afraid to come to work, and no employee should ever fear retaliation if she steps forward to report conduct that makes her feel afraid.”

The key witness, Denice Rice, a 20-year fire prevention technician in the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region 5, at the members’ urging, described a supervisor who back in 2009 began speaking to her of sexual dreams and isolated her in a remote office. “He took a letter opener and poked both my breasts, with a smile,” she told the committee. He followed her into the bathroom and “lifted my shirt.”

Her ordeal—detailed in a Huffington Post article—took away her “reputation and dignity,” making her life “a living hell” as her husband was “helpless” to aid her. The Agriculture Department’s claim of “zero tolerance is baloney,” Rice said, who, because of an inspector general’s investigation, had to “relive” the details over and over.

After she complained, her boss called “an all-hands meeting, which I begged not to have to attend, but was directed to,” she said. “I was put on public display for people I had known for years. I was being blamed for the destruction of the firefighting organization and left the meeting shaking.”

To make matters worse, she said, the perpetrator—identified at the hearing as division chief Mike Beckett—was allowed to retire, but came back at an event as “a motivational speaker,” Rice said.

Expressing sympathy but defending the agency was Lenise Lago, the Forest Service’s deputy chief for business operations. She said that while she knew of Rice’s case, this was the first she had heard that she was forced to share details of her ordeal with fellow rangers at a meeting. 

In her testimony, Lago said the agency’s adjudication process for responding to misconduct had “improved over the last five years” with a new national assessment team and top-level oversight that “avoids favoritism” and publication of a quarterly data on harassment.

“We do not tolerate harassment in the workplace including sexual harassment and we take all complaints seriously,” Lago said. “We investigate all allegations and hold people accountable and publish results.” In 2016, three complaints alleging sexual harassment were raised, she added, and the agency received 48 complaints based on gender, the lowest level in the last five years.

But Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., mocked her and her civil rights office co-witness for describing a “glowing eight-year record.” Making such a victim “give multiple accounts runs afoul of what every sexual harassment law expert teaches,” said the former prosecutor. “Why didn’t you fire him?”

To which Lago replied that the man “was proposed for removal and allowed to retire” with benefits, a common federal practice, she said, adding, “We don’t have an alternative.” Lago reported that last year 17 employees were terminated for sexual misconduct, and about 600 were disciplined.

But Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said her failure to fire the perpetrator shows she either does not “know the letter of the law,” U.S. Code Title 5, or committed “malfeasance,” and that she should have consulted the agency’s general counsel.

Equally critical of the agency was Forest Service veteran Lesa Donnelly, now an independent federal employee advocate with the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees. She said the agency’s handling of sexual misconduct reflected “backsliding” since the 1990s, when she considered the approach under Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to be a model. 

“I can’t think of one thing that has improved under” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Director Tom Tidwell, she said, calling their agencies “unwilling to investigate complaints properly and hold people accountable” or increase diversity. “The attitude from 1971 that a woman firefighter is taking a man’s job or that she’s hired only for diversity continues to this day,” Donnelly said, noting 6,000 complaints filed since 2006. “One male firefighter said he found women colleagues “smelly and disgusting and they should be required to shower daily,” she said.

Her organization wrote to Vilsack and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, but received no reply from Vilsack. When a mediation meeting finally was held in San Francisco, the Agriculture Department’s representative walked out after an hour. Vilsack was willing only to discuss his own “cultural transformation” initiative while the platitude of zero tolerance is just “lip service,” Donnelly said.

In just the past few weeks, Donnelly said she has heard of a rape victim being fired for reporting the assault. “I fear the next administration will have another class action in 2017, which is very expensive to the taxpayers,” she said. “These issues keep me from sleeping at night, and I wish it was hard for Chief Tisdale and Vilsack to sleep at night. Because then maybe we’d get something done.” 

Joe Leonard Jr., assistant Agriculture secretary for civil rights, defended the department’s larger record on diversity and combatting discrimination, stressing that he is the longest-serving Senate confirmed civil rights appointee of President Obama. He said the department has reorganized and strengthened the civil rights structure so that regional managers report directly to the office, which then reports directly to the Forest Service director. “They’re not stuck in regional facilities in far-off places,” he said, adding that his employees were among the first to agree to abide by the secretary’s anti-sexual harassment statement.

He said average discrimination complaint processing times have been reduced from four years to 18 months.

But both Chaffetz and Cummings expressed disappointment that Leonard’s office had delayed in producing requested documents. (Leonard, citing confidentiality, apologized and agreed to deliver within two weeks.) 

Cummings said he was “deeply troubled by a letter that the Office of Special Counsel sent to President Obama in May 2015. This letter was unprecedented….It warned President Obama that USDA’s civil rights program has been seriously mismanaged, thereby compromising the civil rights of USDA employees.” They plan further reviews on the matter.

Returning to the subject of sexual harassers being allowed to keep their federal jobs and benefits, Chaffetz said, “There comes a time when we’re going to have to be able to fire somebody. Why doesn’t USDA blaze the trail?” he asked. “Let’s actually have them lead rather than have what’s been going on for 40 years.”