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Monday, December 5, 2016

Fwd: Wash Post (2),NY Times : 45 Years of Harassment of Female Wildfire Firef...

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There were two Washington Post stories published regarding theUSDA Forest Service sexual harassment & other abuses.

After 45 years of harassment of female wildfire fighters, Congress says enough

The inside track on Washington politics.

Energy and Environment

December 1 at 5:16 PM

Wildfire fighters Denice Rice, left, and Darlene Hall, behind, listen to a House member's question. U.S. Agriculture Department representatives Lenise Lago (silver coat) and Joe Leonard are seated to her right. (Darryl Fears / The Washington Post)


In a scathing rebuke of the U.S. Agriculture Department, House members called its response to harassment claims filed by female wildfire fighters "incompetent" in an oversight hearing on Thursday. They also said a department reprimand that allowed a fire supervisor to quit with full benefits after groping a woman 20 times was "unacceptable."

Firefighter Denice Rice's testimony that the fire supervisor who repeatedly groped her was a known bully and "a womanizer to female employees for years and nobody did anything about it" was the focus of their anger.  At the Eldorado National Forest where she works in California, about 200 miles north of Sacramento, "women were afraid to complain and the one who did report him ended up leaving the agency," she said.

Rice said the supervisor told her that he had a dream in which they had sex, tried several times to lift her shirt and followed her to the bathroom. Her account tracked with behavior that other wildfire fighters for the Forest Service and other federal agencies described in interviews with The Washington Post for an article last month. Many of them asked that their names not be reported for fear of retaliation.

After several years of harassing women, the supervisor was asked to retire with government benefits. "The guy should not only have been fired, he should have been arrested!" Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) shouted at Lenise Lago, deputy chief of the business office at the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department, and Joe Leonard, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights, both of whom testified in an attempt to explain their actions.

Near Rice, in the first row of chairs behind the witness table, sat Darlene Hall, a forest aviation officer at Angeles National Forest with 31 years of experience. "The groping started as soon as I took the job," Hall said. She was 18.

In addition to being passed over for promotions 40 times, Hall said in her submitted testimony, "I was threatened with physical harm, called names, belittled, not promoted to vacant positions, but I was expected to perform in these positions without pay. I trained men, only for them to be promoted above me."

Forty-five years have passed since the first wide-ranging claim of discrimination against women at the Forest Service outposts in California, but the behavior continued for decades, civil rights activists say. Thursday's hearing followed one in September at which women who fight fires for the National Park Service said they encountered treatment similar to what Rice described.

In a male-dominated workforce, female firefighters persevere

The Fire Learning Network hosted its first female firefighter training program in 2016. Some of the women who attended the program told The Post what it's like to pursue a career in a male-dominated environment. (Monica Akhtar,Tauhid Chappell/The Washington Post)

The Fire Learning Network hosted its first female firefighter training program in 2016. Some of the women who attended the program told The Post what it's like to pursue a career in a male-dominated environment. The Fire Learning Network hosted its first female firefighter training program in 2016. (Monica Akhtar, Tauhid Chappell/The Washington Post)


Two class action suits against the Forest Service in 1972 and 1995 resulted in consent decrees that ordered the agency to recruit and train more women, but the programs were abandoned when the decrees expired. Lesa Donnelly, a former department employee who led the second class, said the agency simply hired any woman to fill jobs to satisfy a requirement to increase their numbers to 43 percent, even when they lacked skills, leading to resentment from men. "There was no plan," she said.

Now women hold about 12 percent of the government's permanent wildfire-suppression jobs at the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Because of a culture they describe as bullying and harassing of women, retaining them is a challenge.

Wildfire fighter Denice Rice, right, and civil rights activist Lesa Donnelly preparing to leave at the end of the hearing. (Darryl Fears / The Washington Post)


Lago's testimony that the culture has improved did not impress the panel. Members blamed her office for cutting the deal that allowed Rice's supervisor to walk away with full government benefits and without atoning for what they called a crime. Leonard's testimony that investigations of cases were more vigorous was met with observations from members that cases in past had been lost, mishandled and delayed as a culture that degraded women continued.

"My career has been ruined," Rice said in an interview after the hearing. Shortly after filing her claim against the Forest Service, she said, she was relieved of a supervisory position without explanation. Her account was chronicled in a Huffington Post report headlined, "Out Here No One Can Hear You Scream," about women who fight fires in the nation's most remote forests. Her alleged perpetrator was identified in the article and at the hearing as Mike Beckett, a former fire division chief.

Rice said neither Lago or Leonard have made an attempt to contact her, even as retaliation by her superiors, who were friendly with Beckett, continues. She stiffened when asked what she expected when she returned to work on Monday.

"I really love my job," Rice testified, "but I have witnessed females being overlooked, not taken seriously, passed over and not given equal opportunities."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and ranking Democrat Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) said they were particularly disturbed by Rice's story. Both members offered her telephone numbers that went directly to their desks.

"As I sit here and watch Ms. Rice, it's very painful," Cummings said. "I can feel your pain. You talk about your husband and how he felt as a man that he could not protect you. That's not right. We've got to deal with this."

"Don't be bashful about picking up the phone and letting us know of any problems you have," Chaffetz told Rice. In an interview afterward, he said it was the first time he had ever made such an offer to a witness. From his chair, he said: "I have to let you know how inspirational you are to other women. On behalf of the members, we will go to the ends of the Earth to protect you."

Chaffetz turned to Lago and Leonard and told them to change the department culture. He wondered whether Congress should find easier ways to fire sexual abusers at the Forest Service if they, as Lago said, can't be easily fired. Palmer chimed in, saying that rules allowed it, but Lago didn't seem to know they existed.

"I don't even want to have to call you up here again," Chaffetz said. "We hear a lot of people say, 'My statistics are good.' The evidence is to the contrary."

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.

Follow @bydarrylfears


Forest Service slammed over sexual-harassment and civil rights complaints

The inside track on Washington politics.

December 2 at 7:00 AM

Lisa Donnelly, a former Forest Service employee,  is the vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, which in part represents employees who file discrimination and harassment claims. (Photo by Tauhid Chappell/The Washington Post)

Members of Congress took the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Forest Service to the woodshed Thursday, following years of sexual harassment and whistleblower retaliation complaints.

The bipartisan whipping followed tearful and disturbing testimony from a wild land firefighter about sexual abuse.

With a halting voice, Denise Rice, a fire prevention technician in California's Eldorado National Forest, recalled a male supervisor who took a letter opener and "poked my breast, both breasts, with a smile on his face in an arrogant way, like he could get away with it."

"I stood there in shock," she said, her emotions welling. 

Her comments seemed shocking to members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at the hearing, especially when they learned the alleged harasser was allowed to retire without punishment, then returned as a motivational speaker. 

"We will not put up with this crap," said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). "Really. This is unconscionable."

Rice's story is not unique.

"Numerous Department of Agriculture employees who were subject to sexual assault, harassment and discrimination also came forward to the committee," said Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). "The number of examples and despicable acts were quite horrifying. Some of these women had even been raped by coworkers, but refused to testify due to the threat of retaliation and having their careers destroyed." 

Rice said her second-line supervisor "repeatedly sexually harassed me" from 2009 through 2011 "and he assaulted me in 2011." She complained, but that only made things worse.

 "I filed a complaint and the instant I filed everything changed," she said. "Management removed all of my supervisory responsibilities, moved me from my location, and isolated me."

Chaffetz and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the committee's ranking Democrat, were adamant in their assurances that the panel would shield employees who report wrongdoing.

"We want to do everything in our power to protect you," Cummings said.

Often in congressional hearings, committee members who belong to the president's party will provide cover for presidential appointees whose performance is questioned by the opposition. Democrats offered Joe Leonard Jr., Agriculture's assistant secretary for civil rights, no such comfort. 

Democrats and Republicans grilled Leonard on a 2015 letter to President Obama from Carolyn N. Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel. It said Leonard's office "should set the standard … for creating an environment free of discrimination. Rather than leading this effort," it continued, Leonard's office "has an unusually high number of complaints filed against its own leadership."

I've known Leonard for years. He has long history as a civil rights activist. Yet his responses seemed officious and incongruous with Rice's alarming testimony.

In his opening statement, Leonard said his office has made "significant progress" by cutting civil rights program complaints from four years to 18 months and by working with the Forest Service to strengthen and enhance compliance with sexual-harassment policies. Later, he cited his office's numerous accomplishments since the 2015 letter and said the department has undergone a "generational change" in civil rights.

That didn't satisfy Cummings, who said Leonard's claim of progress was hard to reconcile with the employee's testimony and complained that his office had not fully responded with information Cummings requested almost a year ago.

"I have been extremely frustrated and disappointed by the response I received from department officials," Cummings said.

The disparity between Rice's testimony and that of Agriculture Department officials "sounds like we're talking about two different worlds," Cummings said.

In that he included Lenise Lago, the Forest Service deputy chief of business operations. After Rice said the sordid details of her harassment were told to her colleagues, making her life "a living hell," Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) asked Lago why Rice's story was made public.

 "Per our protocol," Lago said, explaining that should not have happened, "only people involved in the inves …"

Gowdy stopped her.

"I don't want to be rude," he said, "but I really don't give a damn about protocol."

A must-read morning briefing for decision-makers.

Leonard's statistics and Lago's bureaucratic line about protocol harkened back to testimony by Lesa L. Donnelly, a former Forest Service employee who now is vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees.

"We have been reporting egregious incidents of sexual harassment, work place violence, discrimination, and reprisal to [Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack since 2009 to no avail. …" she said. "I received the same platitude as always, 'There is zero tolerance for sexual harassment and workplace violence.' It was lip service."

The committee members emphasized they have zero tolerance for USDA lip service.

"I want to be absolutely clear, absolutely clear, that any retaliation against any witness before this committee or a victim of sexual harassment is totally, completely unacceptable and gravely concerns the committee," Chaffetz said. "And I can promise you and assure you that Mr. Cummings and I, as well as members on both sides of this aisle, will fight and push and defend these people who are whistleblowers who are trying to do what is right for the country, trying to do what is right for them personally, and trying to do what is right for their fellow employees."

Read more:

[Few women fight wildfires. That's not because they're afraid of flames.]

[Lawmakers step up pressure on Park Service in sexual misconduct probe]

Columnist Joe Davidson covers the federal government in the Federal Insider. It replaced the Federal Diary, which focused on federal employees. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

Follow @JoeDavidsonWP


Workers: Sexual Harassment Also Rampant at Forest Service

WASHINGTON — Two months after uncovering rampant sexual harassment, bullying and other misconduct at the National Park Service, a House oversight panel says similar problems plague the Forest Service.

A longtime employee at California's Eldorado National Forest said Thursday that the Forest Service "is rigged against women for reporting sexual harassment or assault," adding that male supervisors who harass or assault women are rarely disciplined.

Denice Rice, a fire prevention technician, told the House Oversight Committee that a supervisor who harassed and assaulted her was allowed to retire with full benefits, then was rehired as a contractor and even selected to give a motivational speech to an elite firefighting group.

"Rehiring this predator was a message to me and other employees that the agency did not feel he did anything wrong," Rice said. "I felt devalued and as if I didn't matter."

Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, called the agency's treatment of Rice "offensive" and said it echoed widespread problems uncovered at the park service, especially among firefighters.

The oversight panel heard testimony in September about frequent sexual harassment, bullying and other misconduct at national parks across the country, including at iconic sites such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. At Yosemite, at least 18 employees complained about harassment so severe that a recent report labeled working conditions at the park "toxic."

Park Superintendent Don Neubacher retired weeks after the hearing amid allegations of mismanagement, as did his wife, Patty, a deputy regional director for the Pacific West Region, which covers 56 national parks in six states.

Following the Sept. 22 hearing, lawmakers were deluged with "stories of harassment, discrimination and retaliation," Chaffetz said, not only at the park service, but also at the Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.

"The number of examples and despicable acts were quite horrifying," Chaffetz said. "Some of these women had even been raped by co-workers but refused to testify due to the threat of retaliation and having their careers destroyed."

Chaffetz called the behavior "an immediate crisis" that needs urgent action.

"While many changes are still needed, the Park Service has begun the process to deal with their cultural problems and removed some bad managers from their positions of leadership," Chaffetz said. By contrast, the Forest Service has "a deep-seated cultural problem that has not necessarily been addressed," he said.

Lesa Donnelly, a former Forest Service worker who now works with agency employees on workplace issues, said she has reported "egregious incidents of sexual harassment, work place violence, discrimination and reprisal" to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack since 2009 to no avail. The Agriculture Department oversees the Forest Service.

Forest Service investigations "invariably are turned against the employee reporting incidents," Donnelly said. "Reprisal is swift and severe."

A spokeswoman for Vilsack denied that and said "USDA has taken unprecedented actions" in recent years to combat harassment and bullying.

"USDA, including the U.S. Forest Service, has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workforce," said spokeswoman Catherine Cochran. "We take all complaints seriously and take assertive measures ... up to terminating employees when wrongdoing is confirmed."

Over the past three years, 67 Forest Service employees have been cited for sexual misconduct, including 21 who were fired and 28 who were suspended, Cochran said, citing statistics provided by the Forest Service. Eighteen employees received discipline ranging from a letter of reprimand to reassignment, demotion or resignation, she said.

While women comprise about 35 percent of the agency's 40,000 workers, the number of female firefighters remains significantly below that, said Lenise Lago, deputy chief of business operations for the Forest Service.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said sexual harassment and assault of female workers is commonplace at the Forest Service.

"Paraphrasing from William Shakespeare, there's something rotten in USDA and the Forest Service, and it's been going on for 40 years," Speier said.