Forest Service chief testifies before congressional committee on workplace sexual abuse

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PHOTO: U.S. Forest Service Chief, Tony Tooke, speaks during a media briefing for the Eagle Creek Fire outside the Troutdale Policing Community Center in Troutdale, Ore., Sept. 9, 2017.

Amid allegations of harassment and misconduct at the U.S. Forest Service, its chief, Vicki Christiansen, testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Thursday along with a former agency employee who claims to have been harassed by the former chief.

Shannon Reed, an air quality specialist, claims in her written testimony she was viewed as a “sexual object” and that the former Forest Chief Tony Tooke grabbed her buttocks.

“I did not report Mr. Tooke because I feared retaliation,” Reed testified.

Tooke resigned after an investigation looking into the allegations made against him of sexual misconduct began. Shortly afterward, Christiansen, the interim chief at the time, issued a mandatory full-day training about harassment and safety in the workplace.

Reed testified she left Grand Canyon National Park and transferred to the Park Service to get away from the supervisors and managers who “harassed me, and assaulted me, and then retaliated against me when I reported it.”

“Little did I know that transferring from the Park Service to the Forest Service was jumping from the frying pan into the fire,” she said.

Reed told the committee an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor filed a report on her behalf to attempt to address the harassment. Afterward, she said, she got a fully successful performance rating but her supervisor, Jack Triepke, yelled at her and threatened to fire her. She filed another complaint, which resulted in Harassment Assessment Review Team intervention. Both inquiries found Reed’s claims were “unsubstantiated” although there were witnesses to the incidents, Reed said.

After further complaints and investigation, Reed was suspended for seven days and “received a marginal rating at mid-year.”

Years of glowing reports preceded that one, including comments on Reed’s “commitment to achieving the agency’s missions and goals,” Reed’s 2018 review from her supervisor was far from positive. She was instructed to “be working at your desk at all times with the exceptions of short trips to the restroom,” according to documents read by the committee.

“There were no consequences for my superiors,” Reed said Thursday. “It was just me. I just got the consequences.”

One hundred current and former female employees of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wrote an open letter Wednesday to Christiansen, echoing Reed’s fear of retaliation and to “expose serious issues of discrimination, harassment, and workplace violence against female employees.”

In her testimony, Christiansen said the agency knows of the work they have to do going forward.

“We know that we have big work to do about the fear of retaliation, people are not coming forward. I cannot be any more clear than that,” she said.

Christiansen said it would take an overhaul of the department’s culture to change the environment of the organization. She said like other large groups, there are people that are not doing the right thing and who don’t respect each other.

“I would like to say I can change it in six months, but to be absolutely honest, I don’t think you can change a culture of an organization…that has 40,000 employees,” Christiansen said. “It has to be a whole system of improvement. I don’t think it’s ever going to be totally done. You can be good and still not good enough.”

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham fired at Christiansen, citing multiple incidents where department members were dishonest with their supervisors and in reporting misconduct.

“Our expectation is going to be that you are going to resolve this. Until you stand up and say, ‘Every tool at my disposal, I will have a zero-tolerance policy’ your culture will not change and people will not come forward because they are trapped in an environment where they will be immediately punished and bullied by their co-workers,” Lujan Grisham of New Mexico said.

The women who signed the letter work in a variety of departments within the agency ranging in years of service from as little as three years to more than 25 years. They are all from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities and live across the country.

The Nov. 9 letter is not the first time women working in the agency have complained about abuse.

Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa via AP, FILE
U.S. Forest Service Chief, Tony Tooke, speaks during a media briefing for the Eagle Creek Fire outside the Troutdale Policing Community Center in Troutdale, Ore., Sept. 9, 2017.

In the letter, the women wrote that the USDA and its agencies have a history of overlooked reports of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations. They stated that senior officers of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees “wrote letters to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forest Service Chiefs describing incidents of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against female employees in the Forest Service.”

“Despite the concerns of Congress and the public exposure, the USDA and the Forest Service continue to ignore our complaints and continue this culture of abuse,” the letter stated. “We decided it is time for you to hear our voices.”

“The concerns of Congress,” the women wrote about were prompted after two women who worked for the agency testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in December 2016. They testified after a few women shared their stories in a Huffington Post Highline report. Multiple class-action lawsuits have also been filed against the agency over the years.

The women claim the agency took no action and there were no “positive changes to the work environment” even after the hearing.

“We watched Congressman Chaffetz, Congressman Cummings, Congressman Gowdy, Congresswoman Speier, and others tell Deputy Chief Lenise Lago and Assistant Secretary Joe Leonard that they did not believe their “data” and told them to fix the problems of gender discrimination and sexual harassment,” the letter stated. “We hoped the agency would take action.”

Fueled by the agency’s lack of effort to confront the ongoing issue, the women said they continued to speak to media outlets in hopes of garnering more attention to expose the agency’s shortcomings.

PHOTO: Vicki Christiansen is shown in this 2012 photo when Christiansen served as interim regional forester for Region 1, based in Missoula, Mont.John Crepeau/The Missoulian via AP, FILE
Vicki Christiansen is shown in this 2012 photo when Christiansen served as interim regional forester for Region 1, based in Missoula, Mont.

“When PBS aired in March 2018 we had hope again,” the women stated after the outlet published its investigation of women who reported harassment and received retaliation in return. The PBS report also revealed sexual misconduct allegations made against Tooke.

“The exposure of Tony Tooke’s sexual misconduct/forced retirement was the perfect opportunity for the Forest Service to admit there were problems at all levels, and to assess how and why a male manager guilty of sexual misconduct could promote to the highest levels of the agency,” the women wrote. “It was our expectation that the agency would acknowledge those of us who have been coming forward (many of us for years), and include us in problem-solving initiatives. This did not happen.”

Despite the full training day and the “30-day plan” implemented to include listening sessions, “Stand Up” values clarification/training sessions and advisory groups, the women claim the tactics were ineffective as they continued to face harassment and abuse in their work fields.

“Many of us observed that managers with harassment claims against them (including sexual harassment) were the ones facilitating these sessions,” the letter stated. “We sat there and listened to management and employees blame the women, and blame PBS for having to go through these processes.”

Some women spoke out during the “Stand Up” sessions, but not everyone did so for fear of retaliation, they wrote in the letter.

“And we want you to understand, we have real concerns that through your “Stand Up” program you are putting the burden on us to “stand up” and speak out about harassment when you have not made it a safe environment for us to do so,” the women wrote.

In conclusion, the women demand Christiansen and her staff meet with everyone who signed the letter and that a delegation of women meet with USDA and Forest Service officials to “collaborate on problem-solving” and find a resolution. The hope is to alleviate the impact harassment has had on their mental and emotional health.

“We have ideas and want to share them with you and your staff,” the women stated.

ABC News reached out to Christiansen’s press team, but have not received a response.

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