Justice Department Gave Bonuses to Employees Under Investigation for Sexual Harassment

Watchdog finds improper tracking of complaints and inconsistent penalties for substantiated allegations.

Some of the 1,400 attorneys and support employees at the Justice Department’s Civil Division have been given performance awards at the same time they are under investigation or being disciplined for sexual harassment, the department’s inspector general reported on Thursday.

In an unusual report accompanied by a “management advisory memorandum” to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and a nine-minute podcast, IG Michael Horowitz warned of “systemic issues” with Justice Department components’ handling of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations.

The cases involve claims of stalking, peeping, inappropriate touching, inappropriate relationships with subordinates, inappropriate comments and the practice called “catfishing,” in which an employee disguises his or her identity online while making sexual overtures.

All, if confirmed, would violate “zero tolerance” policies at Justice that go back to 1993 under Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno.

The current Civil Division, though it has made some progress in its reporting and adjudicating claims, “must address significant weaknesses in its tracking of allegations, as well as inconsistencies among penalties imposed for substantiated allegations,” IG auditors found. Specifically, the IG noted that the division lacks its own internal policies for handling sexual harassment, having opted to follow broad federal law.

The systemic issues include inconsistent reporting to component agencies, the IG said in his management advisory. “We are also concerned that the OIG, which is supposed to receive ‘any allegation of criminal or serious administrative misconduct’ to ensure it is investigated and addressed appropriately, may not be made aware of the allegations when they first occur.”

A lack of guidance risks inhibiting substantiated allegations from making their way to top leadership, the IG said, while the practice of bestowing awards on those under accusation or discipline may discourage genuine victims from filing reports.

The report detailed why the IG believes the division does not effectively track or maintain adequate records on allegations of misconduct.  

For example, the Office of Management Programs/Human Resources “maintains case files as paper records, filed by each employee’s last name,” it said. “We found eight case files filed under the name of the alleged perpetrator of the offensive conduct. In one unsubstantiated case, the records were maintained under the name of the alleged victim. In another case, in which we could not determine whether the Civil Division had substantiated the allegation, OMP/HR maintained the record file under the name of the alleged victim. All of the case files lacked any marking or mechanism that could be used to identify the case file as one related to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct.”

Nor does the division have penalty tables or guidelines for handling substantiated cases of sexual harassment and misconduct, the result being inconsistent penalties that often merely involve a reprimand, title changes or reassignment.

In four recommendations, the IG urged Justice to create a standardized tracking system, develop policies and guidance consistent with departmentwide policy on sexual misconduct, develop penalty guidelines to improve consistency, and rethink the timing of performance awards.

Justice agreed with all of the recommendations.