The decades-old culture of sexual harassment at the U.S. Forest Service hit a new low late Wednesday when the agency’s chief, Tony Tooke, abruptly resigned after reports emerged that Tooke was under investigation by the Agriculture Department for sexual misconduct. The Forest Service is part of the department.
In a resignation letter to Forest Service employees obtained by Politico, Tooke wrote, “I have been forthright during the review, but I cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported in the news media. What I can control, however, are decisions I make today and the choice of a path for the future that is best for our employees, the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I must also think about what is best for my family. Therefore, I have decided that what is needed right now is for me to step down as Forest Service Chief and make way for a new leader that can ensure future success for all employees and the agency.”
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The allegations of sexual misconduct against Tooke involved relationships with subordinates before he became chief, PBS NewHour reported. Tooke spent his entire career at the agency; he joined the Forest Service at the age of 18 and was in the first inaugural class of the Senior Leadership Program. When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appointed Tooke to the top job in December 2017, he said, “Tony has been preparing for this role for his whole professional life, and at a time when we face active and growing fires, his transition into leadership will be seamless.”
Tooke’s resignation follows an in-depth report by PBS NewsHour on March 1 that found widespread harassment and fear of retaliation at the agency:
Seven of the 34 women interviewed asked to remain anonymous for fear of further retaliation. Fear was a common theme in the interviews. One woman said she went to the hospital multiple times for “her nerves” after reporting harassment. Another asked the NewsHour to destroy her interview transcript, because she became too afraid of the consequences. A third, a firefighter who resigned from her position in 2016 after she reported to police that she was raped on assignment in Montana, said: “We all live in this fear … So if I have to speak up I will. But it’s frustrating because there’s so many more out there who are not talking.”
After the March 1 report aired, PBS NewsHour reported that it had been contacted by an additional 45 women and men with stories about the agency.
Problems at the Forest Service are longstanding. In December 2016, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard emotional testimony and graphic details of misconduct at the agency.
As Government Executive reported at the time, “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.”