OIG reports on investigations of sexual harassment in Forest Service

The OIG recommended that only contractor investigators or investigators from other Federal agencies be used for these complaints

The Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General has issued a report on how the Forest Service has handled investigations into complaints of sexual misconduct and harassment within the agency. The document was released about the same time the Chief of the FS resigned while facing allegations of sexual misconduct disclosed on the PBS NewsHour program.

The objective of the report was to evaluate the effectiveness of the investigations. The FS is part of the Department of Agriculture, so this process was basically an internal investigation.

The OIG found through interviews with 69 current and former FS employees in Region 5 (California) that 33 of them expressed some level of mistrust in FS’ process for handling sexual harassment and sexual misconduct complaints.

The OIG recommended that for a year the FS try using only contract investigators or investigators from other Federal agencies. The FS agreed with this recommendation and stated they could implement it by March 30, 2019.

The entire 9MB OIG report is here, and below is a graphic from the document.

Office of inspector general sexual harassment

Allegations of sexual misconduct in the Forest Service go all the way to the top

An “independent investigator” is looking into complaints against Chief Tony Tooke

Tony Tooke
Tony Tooke. USFS

When the PBS program NewsHour announced that the second installment of their story on sexual harassment in the U.S. Forest Service would continue Friday night, we didn’t know it would implicate the Chief of the agency Tony Tooke.

Below is an excerpt from the NewsHour article, dated 6:35 p.m. EST March 2, 2018.

The U.S. Forest Service has confirmed that the United States Department of Agriculture, its parent agency, has “engaged an independent investigator” to look into complaints against Chief Tony Tooke.

In the course of reporting its investigation, the PBS NewsHour discovered allegations of sexual misconduct against Tooke, specifically relationships with his subordinates, before he became chief.

And, NewsHour’s 7-minute video:

The first installment of the story Thursday night reported on interviews with dozens of U.S. Forest Service female employees, many of them firefighters. The women gave numerous examples of gender discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, and assault by crew members and supervisors. Three women said they were raped by fellow employees.

On August 21, 2017 Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that he selected Tony Tooke to be the Chief of the Forest Service. At that time the Regional Director of the agency’s Southern Region, Mr. Tooke replaced Tom Tidwell who announced his retirement August 18. Secretary Perdue said about Mr. Tooke:

The Forest Service will be in good hands with the U.S. Forest Service’s own Tony Tooke…As we move into a new season, I look forward to hearing how each member of the USFS family gives Tony your full support…

In a December 1, 2017 message, devoted solely to sexual harassment in the agency, Chief Tooke wrote, in part:

The work to eliminate harassment remains paramount — beyond our progress in mandatory training, reporting, investigations, and taking disciplinary actions. The work ahead, among other steps, must also center on permanently changing our work culture by uplifting and empowering employees. Every employee possesses the right to a safe, respectful workplace where they feel valued, but it takes all of us to protect that right.

NewsHour reported that since September, 2016, the Forest Service has received 1,013 reports of harassment, and completed inquiries or investigations in 632 cases. Of those, the agency said it found misconduct in 150 cases. Since NewsHour published their first report Thursday, more than 45 women and men also came forward with their own stories about the agency after their request to contact them by email at tipline@newshour.org

Chief Tooke is, of course, innocent until proven guilty of the sexual misconduct allegations.

Our opinion:

This is a disgusting, demoralizing, distasteful, detestable scandal facing the agency where I spent 20 years. Looking at the sheer numbers, and knowing that allegations of sexual misconduct go all the way to the top, it is hard to fathom how anyone who has been mistreated can be optimistic that the harassment will stop, or that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.

This HAS to be the Forest Service’s number one priority — clean up this wreckage that is festering within their workforce.

Would you recommend that your sister, daughter, girlfriend, or spouse apply for a job with the U.S. Forest Service?

PBS reports on sexual harassment among firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service

In interviews, 34 women, current and former U.S. Forest Service employees, described a workplace that is hostile to female employees

(Originally published March 2, 2018)

The PBS program Newshour aired a story Thursday night reporting on interviews with dozens of U.S. Forest Service female employees, many of them firefighters. The women gave numerous examples of gender discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, and assault by crew members and supervisors. Three women said they were raped by fellow employees. The video below is a 12-minute version of the piece. The link above has more details.

Below is an excerpt from the PBS story:

In the private sector, employees can file discrimination complaints directly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an independent agency tasked with investigating workplace discrimination. But federal employees, including those in the Forest Service, must first contact their agency’s EEO counselor, who starts an investigation and then makes a decision with the agency on how to handle the complaint. Federal employees dissatisfied with the results can appeal that decision to the EEOC or pursue a case in federal district court.

Many of the women interviewed described the reporting process as long, complicated, and never ending in a satisfying conclusion. Investigations can take years and stretch into hundreds of pages, especially if there is more than one allegation.

The EEOC said the average processing time for all complaints in fiscal year 2016 was 464 days, and that it’s exploring ways to shorten the process. The Forest Service’s new hotline, which is staffed by contractors specifically trained to handle sexual harassment, aims to more efficiently respond to these claims.

[…]

The Forest Service, for its part, said it updated its anti-harassment policy ahead of the [December 2016 congressional] hearing, in September 2016, and launched the national hotline the following November. Since the new anti-harassment policy was put in place, the agency said, it has received 1,013 reports of harassment, and completed inquiries or investigations in 632 of those cases. Of those, the agency said it found misconduct in 150 cases.

Shawna Legarza, National Fire Director for the USFS

In April, 2017 I talked with Shawna Legarza nine months after she began her job as the National Fire Director for the USFS. I asked if there was an area that she felt strongly about, enough that she would give it special attention, and she said, “Absolutely! I’m trying to make some changes in the workplace environment, I feel very strongly about that. I want to see the agency have a workforce that is completely inclusive of each other … and that people’s voices can be heard, understood, listened to and incorporated into all that we do, and that there is no discrimination of any kind. I am very passionate about that and I want to try to make a difference in the workplace environment for all wildland firefighters, for the Forest Service and other agencies.”

“I talk about,” she said, “having a workforce where everybody comes to work, they’re proud to be there, and included in whatever area they are working in, their voices are heard, they are listened to — free of discrimination, free of bias — it’s just a way of being. We’ve got some new initiatives that we are trying to roll out to the workforce.

Ms. Legarza, we were told, was not available for comment today because government offices in the District of Columbia were closed due to weather. The statement below was issued by Dan Jiron, the Department of Agriculture’s Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment:

The stories the Forest Service employees shared during the PBS NewsHour piece are important to hear, difficult and heart-wrenching as they may be.  Stories like these, which have come to light over the past few years, have underscored that there are elements of sexual harassment in the Forest Service that have existed and continue today.  While we have taken significant actions over the past several years to address sexual harassment in the Forest Service, we acknowledge that we have more work to do. These are critical issues that the Forest Service must continue to take on to increase our efforts to protect our fellow employees so they know they can speak up and speak out, without any fear of retaliation or reprisal. Victims must know that there will be accountability for persons who engage in sexual harassment and reprisal.  We are committed to our duty to create a workplace that is respectful, rewarding, and above all, a safe place for all employees.

Congressional hearings

This is not the first time allegations of sexual harassment within the federal firefighting agencies have surfaced. Below are examples between 2014 and 2016, but others regarding the USFS go back much further, to 1972. Some of the recent issues include the National Park Service as well as the USFS.

    • In September 2014 seven female wildland firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service filed a complaint against the Department of Agriculture alleging that they suffered job discrimination, harassment and sexual abuse at the hands of male co-workers and that top agency officials failed to stop it.
    • In March, 2016 the Huffington Post in a lengthy article by Kathryn Joyce described what appeared to be a stunning culture of serious sexual harassment being virtually tolerated in some locations within the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
    • September 22, 2016 the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard testimony from two employees about harassment in the NPS and the USFS. Kelly Martin, Fire Management Officer at Yosemite National Park, described “..a hostile work environment in Yosemite where dozens of individuals have come forward with personal statements of demoralizing behavior to include acts of bullying, gender bias, and favoritism.” She also described sexual harassment in a previous job when she worked for the USFS.
    • Members of that same House Committee and other Senators and Congresspersons, a total of 13, signed a letter on November 10, 2016 requesting that Phyllis K. Fong, the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, conduct an audit of the USFS to find out if progress has been made after allegations surfaced in 2014 of “sexual misconduct and retaliation in Region 5 [California] of the FS”.
    • On December 1, 2016 the committee held another hearing “to address misconduct, sexual harassment, and disparate treatment of women within the U.S. Forest Service”, and, “to examine the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s management of its Office of Civil Rights and handling of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints.” One of the witnesses to testify was Denice Rice, a Fire Prevention Technician on the Eldorado National Forest at El Dorado, California. She told a horrifying story of being harassed for years by her supervisor and then being victimized again with reprisals.

Kelly Martin, Yosemite

Sexual harassment Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park Fire Management Officer
Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park Fire Management Officer, at the hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, September 22, 2016. Screen grab from the committee’s video.

Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, has had a 34-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. For the last decade she has served as the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management in the park. She was one of the witnesses who testified at the September 22, 2016 Congressional hearing. We asked her today about her reaction to the March 1 PBS Newshour story:

Most women I have talked to fear coming forward for this very reason [retribution].  People will not believe them. It’s time we start believing them! Most women I know who have been through sexual harassment and hostile working conditions want the toxic behaviors to stop and by coming forward they hope by breaking the silence, working conditions in the federal wildland fire services will be better for their sisters and brothers coming up through the ranks.

NPS as a whole has made significant strides in addressing the need to hold perpetrators accountable. NPS Fire on the other hand only has 3 female Fire Management Officers nationwide. There is a very high drop out rate of women rising through the ranks.

Not just women should be asking this question but our men in leadership positions should be concerned by asking this very same question. Identify the reasons why women drop out and commit to a plan of progressive gender equality in wildland fire. Period!

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Congress holds another hearing about sexual harassment of firefighters

Congressional and Inspector General investigations into allegations of sexual harassment of federal firefighters are becoming frequent. After two hearings before the Full House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about sexual misconduct in the National Park Service, a number of employees of the U.S. Forest Service came forward with similar stories.

On December 1 the committee held another hearing “to address misconduct, sexual harassment, and disparate treatment of women within the U.S. Forest Service”, and, “to examine the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s management of its Office of Civil Rights and handling of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints.”

One of the witnesses to testify was Denice Rice, a Fire Prevention Technician on the Eldorado National Forest at El Dorado, California.

She told a horrifying story of being harassed for years by her supervisor and then being victimized again with reprisals. Here are some excerpts from her written testimony:

…From 2009 through 2011 my second line supervisor repeatedly sexually harassed me and he assaulted me in 2011. I filed a complaint and the instant I filed everything changed. Management removed all of my supervisory responsibilities, moved me from my location, and isolated me. This adverse action resulted in a prohibited personnel practice when they removed my supervisory responsibilities that were in my position description.

[—]

Numerous investigations were held. There was an OIG investigation, with interviews from multiple investigators and I had to relive the situation over and over. One of the investigators provided specific details to my peers on what the second line supervisor did to me, including sexual assault. I lost my reputation and my dignity when they made the situation public. My family life was affected. My husband felt helpless because he wasn’t allowed to protect me. My life was a living hell. I was diagnosed with PTSD.

[—]

After the OIG investigation and the Rangers read everything in the report, again violating my confidentiality, the decision was made to terminate him. But before they gave him the proposed removal letter, the Forest Supervisor took him out for coffee to give him advance notice that he was going to be fired. They let him quickly retire with no mark on his record whatsoever.

After his retirement he applied for and was hired on a California Incident Management Team. This put me in a situation where we could both be assigned to the same fire incident. It also allowed him to continue working with women.

[—]

In 2016 the fire organization brought this predator back to the Eldorado forest specifically to give a motivational speech to the Hotshots. So they are still supporting him while I have continued to be harassed by the same individuals that protected him before he left. I have had to file additional reprisal complaints.

The video of the hearing is below. It starts at about 8:30.

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “sexual harassment”.

Members of Congress and the Washington Post look into sexual harassment in the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies

Since at least 1972 there have been investigations, lawsuits, and consent decrees that were spawned from sexual misconduct and discrimination against women in the U.S. Forest Service. A significant portion of it originated within the fire management organization. In spite of the attention this issue draws at somewhat regular intervals it is difficult to detect a great deal of long term improvement.

But it is not confined to the USFS. In a September 22 hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, two National Park Service employees testified as “whistleblowers”, possibly putting their careers in jeopardy and risking retaliation as they described allegations of  sexual harassment and a lack of accountability.

One of them was Kelly Martin, Yosemite National Park’s Chief of Fire and Aviation Management, who has had a 32-year career with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. She described a hostile work environment in Yosemite and the sexual harassment she was exposed to while working for the USFS. Six days later the Superintendent at Yosemite announced his retirement.

Members of that House Committee and other Senators and Congresspersons, a total of 13, signed a letter on November 10 requesting that Phyllis K. Fong, the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, conduct an audit of the USFS to find out if progress has been made after allegations surfaced in 2014 of “sexual misconduct and retaliation in Region 5 [California] of the FS”. At that time the IG investigated and found that:

The Forest Service is making progress and is focused on improving the environment of its workplace.

Below is an excerpt from the November 10 letter:

In addition, given the recent findings of rampant sexual harassment in the Department of the Interior National Park Service, now is an appropriate time to consider whether the Forest Service’s improvements have succeeded in improving the workplace environment. If the new procedures implemented by the FS have been successful, they may serve as a model for other federal agencies. If the new procedures have not been successful, it is critical that they be modified as soon as possible.

In March of this year the Huffington Post published a stunning article outlining a culture of sexual harassment at Grand Canyon National Park, as well as other examples in the USFS. The author, Kathryn Joyce, described numerous disturbing examples of female employees, including a wildland firefighter, being aggressively degraded and humiliated with little if any repercussions for the assailant. In some cases the victims were fired.

And yesterday, November 20, Darryl Fears of the Washington Post wrote about similar difficulties female firefighters in the federal government and other organizations are faced with. The author quotes several women, including Katie Sauerbrey of the Nature Conservancy who embeds with the Forest Service and the National Park Service when needed:

I know a lot of women who have left fire because they did not feel supported or felt there was no room for them to grow. It’s sad for me to see women who have that desire who don’t continue because of the culture. It’s hard to describe the passion people have for this job. There’s no other job I’d rather be in.

In the article Mr. Fears writes about one bright spot or ray of hope — WTREX, or Women-in-Fire Training Exchange, a program for female firefighters.

And there is at least one other encouraging sign. Ms. Martin, the Chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite who testified before the House Committee, told Wildfire Today on September 30, two days after the Park’s Superintendent announced his retirement:

The thing that is surprising is that post my testimony our Regional and National offices, our leadership in the Park Service, is taking the allegations of the hostile work environment complaints seriously. They have also dispatched the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General to complete additional interviews. It sounds as if, I don’t know this for sure, that additional people are willing to come forward based upon my testimony, but they still fear retaliation.

The Washington Post article includes an excellent video in which several women firefighters describe their experiences. Below is a screen grab from the video.

Women-in-Fire Training Exchange
Participants at the Women-in-Fire Training Exchange. Screen grab from the Washington Post video. Click to enlarge.

Wife of embattled former Yosemite NP Superintendent to retire

Another domino has fallen in the Yosemite National Park scandal. The wife of former Park Superintendent Don Neubacher announced her retirement Sunday in an email to employees. Patty Neubacher, one of three Deputy Regional Directors for the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region, said she will be retiring on November 1.

Patty Neubacher
Patty Neubacher. NPS photo.

During a September 22 congressional hearing it was revealed that 20 employees in Yosemite described the park as a hostile work environment as a result of the behavior and conduct of the park Superintendent, Mr. Neubacher. Some employees alleged that Ms. Neubacher had used her position to protect the superintendent, who is supervised by the Pacific West Regional office.

On September 28 Mr. Neubacher sent an email message to all employees in the park announcing his retirement. He explained that in a discussion with the Regional Director “it was determined that new leadership was needed” in the park. He said he was offered a position in Denver serving as a “Senior Advisor to Michael Reynolds, Deputy Director for the National Park Service”, but that since his home was in California he opted to retire. He will be on leave until the retirement is effective November 1, 2016 — the same date his wife’s retirement will take effect.

Ms. Neubacher’s October 2 email read in part:

“This is not the timing that I’d ever envisioned for retiring, but sometimes life takes an abrupt turn.”

A person with inside knowledge of the situation at Yosemite National Park told us that within the next few weeks there will be more revelations about misconduct at the park.