Top lawmakers probe Forest Service sexual harassment complaints: from E&E News

When I read this, I wondered why the OIG was publishing a report in Feb. 2019 about cases from FY 2014-2017.  (I think FY 2017 ended on Sept. 30 2017?).  I thought the major new efforts to combat harassment were started around when Chief Christiansen came on board in October 2018.  Wouldn’t a useful audit answer the question “how are these new approaches to solving the problem working? Again, if anyone can explain why OIG is studying this far in the past, I’d appreciate it. Here’s the link.

Democratic lawmakers in the House today demanded a meeting with Forest Service and Agriculture Department officials to discuss an agency watchdog’s report that outlined shortcomings in the service’s response to sexual harassment complaints.

In some cases, former supervisors in the Pacific Southwest Region didn’t report employees’ prior records of sexual harassment to hiring officials, allowing those employees to be selected for supervisory positions in other locations, USDA’s Office of the Inspector General said in a Monday report.

In other cases, management officials didn’t report incidents of sexual harassment within the 24 hours required by the agency and weren’t disciplined for failing to meet the requirement, the OIG said.

“Given the number of complaints of harassment and retaliation we continue to receive from current and former Forest Service employees, we are deeply concerned about the Forest Service’s commitment to addressing these failures,” Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said in a news release.

“This is an urgent matter and a top priority for us this Congress. We will ask the Inspector General and the Forest Service to brief us on these new findings,” they said in a statement. “We will also ask the Inspector General to review the entire agency’s processes for addressing sexual harassment and misconduct.”

Grijalva is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Cummings is chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Speier chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

The OIG reported that its investigators reviewed 11 substantiated cases in the Pacific Southwest Region from fiscal 2013 to 2017 and found two, and likely a third, situations in which former supervisors did not inform Forest Service hiring officials about employees’ prior histories.

Forest Service staffers have been reluctant to share information on employees due to privacy concerns, the OIG said. But the watchdog agency suggested policy changes. A Forest Service manager told the OIG that supervisors could glean more information through the questions they ask employees applying for jobs, an approach the OIG agreed with, according to the report.

The details of such questioning, however, remain to be determined. The Forest Service said it has concerns about the legal boundaries for questions about past conduct and would consult with the USDA Office of the General Counsel.

The report said the Forest Service “should provide additional training and guidance regarding all supervisors’ responsibility to provide accurate and reliable information during reference checks. Asking more specifically about current or former employees’ prior history regarding serious misconduct provides greater assurance that the supervisor providing the reference will be more forthcoming about this kind of information.”

Investigators also reviewed 125 complaints of sexual harassment from 2014 to 2017 and found that 18 weren’t reported by managers or supervisors within the 24 hours required. In 13 of those cases, no action was taken against managers or supervisors who didn’t meet the requirement, the OIG said.

“This occurred because FS supervisors and managers did not appear to fully understand the 24-hour reporting requirement, and FS lacked specific guidelines on disciplinary actions to take when addressing untimely reporting,” the report said.

In other cases, the report added, employees found to have engaged in harassment were subjected to penalties less severe than outlined in agency guidance, without documented justification.

The Forest Service generally agreed with the OIG’s findings and said it would complete new, related training for hiring managers by June 1.

2 thoughts on “Top lawmakers probe Forest Service sexual harassment complaints: from E&E News”

  1. The items mentioned in the OIG report appear to be different from the types of things that originated after Chief Christensen was appointed. For example, the OIG report mentions that employee references do not allow evidence of prior misconduct to be disclosed, allowing harassers/abusers to be placed in supervisory positions in other regions (“passing the trash, so to speak”). The OIG report also deal with lack of agency followup on requirements for reporting within 24 hours – nothing happened to supervisors who failed to do this and it appears that there was no accountability in the form of penalties that would occur for supervisors who failed to report. And, another finding was that employees found to have engaged in harassment received penalties less severe than those outlined in guidance without any justification for the reduced penalty. To me, this is looking at more systemic, procedural issues. As to whether the new process (whatever that is) is working, that would also be good to have reviewed, but at this stage, I doubt that much can be said. What we do know is that it is impacting field budgets due to the cost of setting up the reporting hotline.

  2. The process for reporting and getting any movement on a case is so long that for many of us this is not the past….the cases drag on for years. The process of reporting is meant to be so tedious that it ensures cases will take years to resolve and that the complainant will not be able to continue and give up.

    The audit arose out of a legal requirement as a result of litigation to determine factors that are fostering the cultural pattern of harassment in the Forest Service. There is over twenty years of active lawsuits based on harassment directed at management within the Forest Service–if twenty years of lawsuits couldn’t change the culture how is examining only of few years of going to? The key part to keep in mind that many of the changes or “improvements” are only lip service.


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