Sexual Harassment Continues to Infect Forest Service, Park Service

Outgoing House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said he would like the new Forest Service chief to “send a clear unmistakable message” that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated. Outgoing House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said he would like the new Forest Service chief to “send a clear unmistakable message” that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

More graphic details on sexual misconduct that led to the March resignation of the Forest Service chief were presented to a House oversight panel on Thursday, the same day that President Trump’s nominee to head the National Park Service acknowledged that such workplace harassment remains a problem at his own agency.

Shannon Reed, an air quality scientific specialist who worked at both agencies before being terminated by the Forest Service this spring, told lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee of a “dark history” of “gender discrimination, sexual harassment, assault and rape” over the past eight years.

While training in fire-fighting, she was called a “slut, whore and cunt” and was told she would have to “suck cock” to keep her job, she said. Male supervisors threatened to “bend me over and spank me,” she testified. She was tripped, pushed and kicked.

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When Reed left the National Park Service operations at the Grand Canyon in 2015 to transfer to the Forest Service, “little did I know I was going from the frying pan to the fire,” she said. Men told her she was “unwelcome as a female” and “seen as a sex object” who had “no right to the job.”

This continued at locations in Albuquerque, N.M., and Alabama, Reed said in emotional testimony that lasted nearly 20 minutes straight. Her supervisor Jack Triepke continually yelled at her during the day but called to invite her to bars at night, she said. Then-Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke “grabbed my butt,” she said.

Reed said that management “did nothing to hold the persons accountable” after she reported the problems to supervisors and filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint.

The Forest Service, she continued, responded with counseling sessions in which the perpetrators were in the same room as the complainants. She was given a seven-day suspension and restricted in her permitted movements in the office. In March 2018, she was fired. “I believe the Forest Service retaliated against me for my sworn testimony against Tony Tooke,” Reed said.

The testimony came a month after new Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen was sworn in, and months after various news media—the PBS NewsHour chiefly—documented sexual misconduct cases at the Forest Service involving at least 34 women. It served as a follow-up to a similar hearing in December 2016 as the inspector general for the Agriculture Department (the Forest Service’s parent agency) described what she was also investigating. Since fiscal 2009, IG Phyllis Fong told lawmakers on Thursday, her office has initiated 13 investigations of allegations of sexual assault involving Forest Service employees.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. the outgoing chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he called the hearing because he wanted the new Forest Service chief to “send a clear unmistakable message” that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated. “A time of transition is precisely the right time,” he said.

Ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said, “The Forest Service has made improvements in the processes it uses to receive and investigate allegations of harassment and bullying. But it is clear that, two years later, many employees still believe the agency tolerates harassment, bullying and retaliation.”

Even worse, he added, the agency “has not fully cooperated” with the committee’s oversight efforts, sending overly redacted documents in response to requests, he said.

Christiansen testified that the Forest Service since 2016 “has continued to take action and work diligently to create a workplace where all employees are valued, safe and respected.” What she described as “an unwavering commitment to address unacceptable conduct” includes new policies, accountability, reporting systems, and training around the workplace environment. Besides the “comprehensive anti-harassment policy” adopted before the 2016 hearing, the Forest Service has issued a contract for outside investigators to handle allegations, she said.

“In the past year, we have established a call center staffed by outside personnel who are trained to handle calls of a sensitive nature and route them appropriately,” she added. “We have also hired case managers who are dedicated to processing cases of harassment, retaliation and bullying” required for all 25,000 permanent employees.

There have been “listening sessions,” a new code of commitment and a new Work Environment and Performance Office that focuses on the issues.

Under skeptical questioning, Christiansen acknowledged that “we still need improvement,” but noted that 634 employees have been fired in the past three years and that the cases of all 34 of the women who stepped forward “are well into the process if not completely closed.” She was unable to comment on Reed or other specific cases, she said.

“Changing a culture is a multi-pronged effort,” Christiansen said, adding that any large organization has a population of mostly good people but some “who don’t do the right thing.” She said she “would like to say [we could do] it in six months, but with an agency that’s 112 years old with a mission of getting a critical job done in remote locations—[it won’t be done] overnight.”

Reed, who identified herself as one of the 34 women, said her case of being fired after retaliation has not been closed. She said the new Forest Service remedies “have no real application in reducing sexual harassment.” The process is a “failure and a waste of money” that “has not made a safe environment for reporting sexual harassment,” she added. She still knows women who are being forced to have sex with their supervisors, Reed said.

On the Senate side, Raymond David Vela, a 28-year career Park Service employee whom Trump nominated to head the agency in August, told the Energy and Natural Resources panel that his agency “had made great strides” but in some ways had still “fallen short” in creating “a workplace that treats them with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Vela called harassment “a scourge” for the service and society. “We will continue to hold people accountable,” he said. “We’re in a better place, with better reporting, subject-matter experts and a defined process.” But he said he was still learning what “takes place in the field, where we haven’t had adequate reporting and protocols.” The NPS is “not quite there yet on accountability,” Vela said. “Every leader in the Park Service must own this,” and it will be used in their performance evaluation process.

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