Forest Service slammed over sexual-harassment and civil rights complaints - The Washington Post
Forest Service slammed over sexual-harassment and civil rights complaints - The Washington Post
Subject: Read this article about yesterday's hearing and then circulate widely
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Subject: Fwd: POLITICO's Morning Agriculture: Former USDA official: Discrimination 'sy...
Sent: Thursday, December 1, 2016, 23:00
the congressional hearing & media coverage is beyond our expectation. this is just a small compared to what is & what is coming.
From: Morning Agriculture <email@example.com>
Date: December 1, 2016 at 10:03:44 AM EST
Subject: POLITICO's Morning Agriculture: Former USDA official: Discrimination 'systemic and institutionalized' —
By Jason Huffman | 12/01/2016 10:00 AM EDT
With help from Helena Bottemiller Evich and Catherine Boudreau
FORMER USDA OFFICIAL: DISCRIMINATION 'SYSTEMIC AND INSTITUTIONALIZED': Discrimination, sexual harassment, abuse and mismanagement of civil rights complaints have been pervasive at the Agriculture Department for decades, particularly at the U.S. Forest Service, Lesa Donnelly, vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, is expected to tell the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a hearing this morning.
Whistleblowers say a culture of reprisal exists at USDA against those who report civil rights violations, which deters the filing of formal complaints. Further, agency investigations, if conducted, are often mismanaged and rarely result in the accused being held accountable, they charge.
"This is systemic and institutionalized," Donnelly told MA on Wednesday. She was a Forest Service administrator in California from 1978 to 2002. In 1996 she filed a class-action lawsuit against the agency on behalf of 6,000 women, alleging a continuing pattern of sexual harassment, hostile work environment and reprisal. It led to a consent decree under which the courts monitored the Forest Service through 2006. In August 2014, a group of eight women filed a separate complaint against the Forest Service alleging similar problems - the first step in what could become another class-action.
The alleged problems are said to reach the highest levels of USDA. The agency's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, which handles discrimination and harassment complaints, had an unusually high number filed against its own officials, according to a May 2015 letter to President Barack Obama from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Between November 2009 and September 2014, according to the letter and USDA officials, more than 50 percent of 231 complaints filed against senior USDA managers had not been investigated within the 180-day time frame required by law.
Joe Leonard, USDA's assistant secretary for civil rights and one of four witnesses slated to testify on Thursday, was expected to say that his office has made "profound strides" in its handling of complaints, according to an advanced copy of his testimony.
The hearing on USDA is House Oversight's latest in a series examining potential misconduct by federal employees and senior management officials, including at the National Parks Service (under the Department of the Interior) and EPA. Pros, stay tuned for our coverage of the hearing.
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: RE: Fwd: Whistleblowers describe culture of sexual harassment, reprisals at USDA
Sent: Thursday, December 1, 2016,
OH! WOW! What's done in the dark....will come out in the light....Good story!
Whistleblowers describe culture of sexual harassment, reprisals at USDA
By Catherine Boudreau
12/01/2016 05:16 PM EDT
The pervasive incidents of discrimination and sexual harassment at the U.S. Forest Service are merely a microcosm of similar problems throughout the Agriculture Department that have been made worse by serious mismanagement at the office that handles the complaints, several whistleblowers told a House oversight panel on Thursday.
"Before any cultural change can occur, the agency must acknowledge the scope of the problem and be willing to make a good-faith effort to address it," Lesa Donnelly, vice president of the advocacy group the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Donnelly alleges the department has been unwilling to rectify the problem despite a mountain of evidence.
The former longtime Forest Service administrator in California, who filed a class-action lawsuit in 1995 against the agency alleging a continuing pattern of sexual harassment, hostile work environment and reprisals on behalf of 6,000 women, is among many whistleblowers who charge that a culture of retaliation persists at USDA against those who report civil rights violations, deterring formal complaints.
They say the department's investigations are often delayed, mishandled and rarely result in the accused being held accountable. And those who are singled out for removal can resign or retire without a stain on their record and with full benefits.
Thursday's oversight hearing is the committee's latest to examine misconduct by federal employees and senior management officials amid internal investigations and media reports on the incidents, including at the EPA and the Interior Department's National Parks Service.
The USDA in particular has a long history of alleged race and gender discrimination and is sometimes referred to as "the Last Plantation" by critics. During the Obama administration, the department reached a $760 million settlement with Native American farmers and a $1.2 billion settlement with black farmers over claims that the groups didn't have equal access to loan programs.
Despite those efforts, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said in a May 2015 letter to President Barack Obama that the problems continue to reach the highest levels at the USDA. The department's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, which handles discrimination and harassment, had an unusually high number of complaints against its own officials, the letter said. The special counsel's findings are based on a report it requested from the USDA Office of Inspector General after three whistleblowers in the civil rights office filed complaints.
The USDA inspector general found that over about a five-year period ending in September 2014, the USDA's civil rights office received more than 230 complaints against senior USDA managers, including 13 against officials in the office itself, and more than half of the total complaints were not investigated within the 180-day time limit established by law.
Joe Leonard, the USDA's assistant secretary for civil rights, told the House oversight panel that the department has made "generational change" in the last seven years. Since the special counsel's letter, his office has closed more than 100 of the delayed cases, while nine are in hearings before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and only three are still open.
The civil rights office processed every complaint within the 180-day frame the following fiscal year, while it handled about three-quarters in a timely manner in fiscal 2015 and less than two-thirds last fiscal year, Leonard said. A department representative said a delay in funding from Congress contributed to the lower figure in fiscal 2016.
The measures the office took to improve its record included removing three directors in its Corporate Services Division and training staff, Leonard said. In a letter earlier this year responding to oversight panel ranking member Elijah Cummings' request for documents on the department's Equal Employment Opportunity program, Leonard said the department's findings of discrimination in complaints had risen over the Obama administration — a number that USDA spokeswoman Cathy Cochran put at 125, compared with just 12 during the George W. Bush administration.
"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognizes that the increase in our findings is not because discrimination has increased at USDA," Leonard wrote in his letter. "Rather, the EEOC sees the increase in findings as evidence that USDA is willing to acknowledge and address discrimination where it has occurred and that our EEO program is doing its job."
Lenise Lago, deputy chief of business operations at the U.S. Forest Service, told lawmakers that her agency also has worked diligently over the last five years to improve how it responds to misconduct, but there is still more to do.
"Allegations involving criminal violations, including physical and sexual assaults, are immediately referred to the appropriate law enforcement for investigation," Lago said, adding that other types of non-criminal misconduct are investigated by trained professionals and procedures are in place to protect victims.
The agency strengthened its anti-harassment policy this year, including requiring management to notify leadership of a report of sexual harassment within 24 hours and initiate an investigation within three work days, Lago said. In the last two years, 315 people have been fired and 70 people have been disciplined for sexual misconduct, she said.
But the testimony of the whistleblowers and that of Leonard and Lagos are from "two different worlds," Cummings (D-Md.) said during the hearing.
Denise Rice, a Forest Service fire-prevention technician in California, told lawmakers that from 2009 through 2011, a supervisor repeatedly sexually harassed and then assaulted her. When she filed a complaint, her management responsibilities were taken away, and she was isolated from her colleagues.
While investigations into her allegations took place, the perpetrator continued supervising women and was promoted to acting district ranger. Finally, Forest Service officials decided to fire him, but he was allowed to retire with a clean record. He was later hired by a California incident-management team that could get put on the same fire as Rice, she said.
Rice is one of eight women who filed a complaint against the Forest Service in 2014 charging a pattern of discrimination and sexual misconduct, the first step in what could become the fourth class-action lawsuit against the agency since the late 1970s. Donnelly's lawsuit was settled with a consent decree under which the courts monitored the Forest Service through 2006. Yet the problems have persisted, Rice said.
After listening to her testimony, Cummings said, "We've got a long way to go. As I sit here and watch Ms. Rice, it's very painful. I can feel her pain. To see her wake up every day and go to a place where she is in fear, that's not right. We have a 40 years' history of this."
Meanwhile, Gayle Petersen, an employee at the USDA's civil rights office and a former branch chief of its Corporate Services Division, told the panel that oppressive conditions and the abuse of authority remains at the office. Petersen, who was one of the three office employees to spur the inspector general investigation, said in her prepared testimony that USDA employees don't trust the complaint process under the civil rights office leadership, with many deciding that the financial and emotional toll of filing a complaint just isn't worth it.
"I, and other members of the USDA staff ... hope that all of the current management officials [absent a few] be removed from their positions to bring integrity back to the USDA civil rights complaint program and process," Petersen said.
Cathea Simelton, a state civil rights manager at the USDA Rural Development office in Georgia, independently told POLITICO that she experienced sexual harassment by a top official in 2014 and 2015. It started with comments on her looks and meeting requests just so he could see what she was wearing, which escalated to questions about whether she was gay and if she thought other employees would perform oral sex for a promotion, Simelton said. When she tried to transfer to a different USDA state branch, the official made calls to stop her from leaving Georgia.
Simelton said she was reluctant and scared to report the official. She had already settled two discrimination complaints while working for the USDA Office of the Executive Secretariat in Washington, D.C., which resulted in her taking the new position in Georgia in 2014. Also, the Georgia official was a political appointee.
"I saw how things unfold in D.C., and I thought I would be discredited, picked apart and eaten alive, regardless of my performance," Simelton said. But during the summer of 2015, the official tried to force her to perform oral sex, and shortly after, sent Simelton an email falsely accusing her of hitting him. "At that point, I knew I had to try and protect myself," she said.
Simelton filed a complaint that August, but the process has dragged on for more than a year. The USDA did not complete an investigation within the 180-day time frame, Simelton said, although her case is now before an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission judge.
As for the official who harassed her, he was already under investigation by USDA for sexual misconduct before Simelton filed her complaint, she said. As a result of that process, the department concluded he needed to be terminated. The official decided to resign.
"That means there is nothing on his record making him ineligible for rehire, so he could come back and do things to more women," Simelton said.
Cochran, the USDA spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case, citing privacy laws. But in a statement, Cochran said USDA, including the U.S. Forest Service, has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workforce.
"USDA is proud of its civil rights record over the last seven years, and of the fact that the department has made great strides in correcting past mistakes, and has successfully chartered a stronger, more inclusive path for our employees and the communities we serve," Cochran said.
Simelton's lawyer, Danielle Obiorah, has represented federal employees since 2011 and before that represented the U.S. Postal Service in civil rights cases. She told POLITICO that the way Simelton's case has been handled is surprising.
"Other agencies typically take sexual harassment complaints more seriously and deal with them quickly, but this has not been the typical response," Obiorah said. "It is surprising given the nature of the charges and that she has people confirming her claims."
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