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Whip cracking, drinking and profanity-laced threats: Government office in charge of etiquette plagued by etiquette problems, watchdog finds

Complaints from employees in the State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol resulted in an watchdog investigation.
Complaints from employees in the State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol resulted in an watchdog investigation. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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When the United States hosts foreign leaders and dignitaries, a little-known office at the State Department is in charge of sweating every detail, from choreographing presidential greetings to arranging seating charts to managing dietary restrictions.

The Office of the Chief of Protocol oversees the glitz and glamour of diplomacy, and is responsible for enforcing the rules of decorum to maintain tradition and tee up U.S. negotiators for success.

But inside that office, U.S. employees have complained about internal breaches in etiquette and protocol under the leadership of the Trump administration’s political appointees running day-to-day affairs.

The complaints resulted in an investigation by the State Department’s in-house watchdog, which in May produced a report saying that the former chief of protocol, Sean Lawler, committed what could be considered “workplace violence” and that Cam Henderson, the current chief of protocol, and Mary-Kate Fisher, her deputy, “failed to report” that behavior “in violation of Department policies.”

Officials described an environment of yelling, cursing, “overconsuming alcohol,” and intimidating and abusive behavior, according to the report, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

“Mr. Lawler had an explosive personality and regularly would throw papers and binders,” the report said of his tenure from December 2017 to July 2019. “Several employees reported that he would crack a horse whip in the office and that, given his general demeanor and conduct, these actions placed them in fear of physical harm.”

State Department officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said Lawler routinely made abusive, homophobic and culturally insensitive comments to his subordinates.

The leadership of the State Department strongly rejected the findings of the report and questioned the motives of the watchdog, which it says demonstrated a “systemic pattern of selective inclusion and exclusion of facts.” The State Department’s June 30 response, which The Post obtained, is the latest sign of bad blood between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the office of the inspector general, which is responsible for investigating suspected waste, fraud and malfeasance at the department.

Pompeo orchestrated the ouster of Steve Linick, the department’s previous inspector general, in the spring, but Linick’s investigations are continuing to be pursued by his successors.

The leadership’s response was addressed to Linick’s replacement, Stephen Akard, who abruptly resigned this month after less than three months on the job. Akard had been pressured by Democratic lawmakers to recuse himself from investigations of whether Pompeo and his wife, Susan, inappropriately used federal resources. Pompeo has denied the allegations. Akard was replaced by Diana R. Shaw, his deputy.

The watchdog report says it is based on accounts from “numerous” officials and took into account other internal investigations by the Office of Civil Rights and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. It also notes that some of the abusive incidents were relayed in “general terms” to protect the identity of officials who “expressed a fear of retaliation.” Elements of the document were first reported by Politico earlier this month.

When asked about the accusations, Lawler told The Post that they were “ridiculously offensive and untrue.” He declined to respond in detail to the various allegations.

A State Department spokesperson added that it is “outrageous that a memo on personnel matters which makes unsubstantiated accusations has been leaked to the press.”

Public awareness of problems at the Protocol Office emerged in June 2019 after Lawler was suspended amid complaints about harassment, including accounts that he carried a whip around the office.

The report sheds new light on a variety of unusual events that took place at the Protocol Office. The whip, for instance, was “gifted” to Lawler by a delegation visiting from Kazakhstan, according to the response from Henderson and Fisher, who called it a “riding crop.”

“There was a verbal complaint from a staff member about this riding crop, directed to Ms. Henderson, who responded by moving the riding crop into her office for safekeeping and informing Ambassador Lawler he should no longer carry the riding crop on his person for any reason,” the response says.

The Protocol Office is home to an influential group of former aides to ex-New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R). Henderson and Fisher worked for Christie, who endorsed Donald Trump at a pivotal moment in the 2016 presidential race.

Officials told The Post that Lawler picked on gay employees and made them feel disrespected. Two State Department officials said Lawler referred to one gay subordinate named Kyle as “Kylie.” The officials also noted that Lawler said that a group of visiting Japanese diplomats “looked like gay porn stars” and that he thought he was getting “hit on” and didn’t want their gifts.

Officials alleged that Lawler made other offensive comments. After a group of Turkish nationals visited the Protocol Office and offered a gift of dates, according to an official, Lawler said the dates were “disgusting,” just like the “dirty” men who had brought them.

Under any administration, work in the Protocol Office often involves grueling deadlines, frequent international travel, and management of obscure and delicate cultural norms. During the previous administration, the office came under criticism when President Barack Obama gave British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a box set of DVDs that were coded for the United States and unwatchable in Britain, causing guffaws in the British media.

But officials who worked under both administrations said the office had never gone through a period of such fear and dysfunction.

The IG report claims that Henderson and Fisher did not intervene when they saw or heard about Lawler abusing colleagues. For instance, it says that Fisher did not act when she saw Lawler “pounding his fists against an administrative employee’s desk and shouting profanities at her.”

In their response, Henderson and Fisher questioned whether it was necessary for them to approach human resources about the incidents and raised doubts about whether Lawler’s behavior qualified as “threatening” or amounted to “violence.”

While acknowledging that Lawler raised his voice on a number of occasions, they said that they discussed his actions between themselves and that Henderson spoke to Lawler about the allegations and in some cases extracted an apology.

Fisher said that only one employee told her about feeling threatened by Lawler, after he tore up a paper and threw it at the employee.

But a memo obtained by The Post, in which two people discussed the threat Lawler posed after he was suspended but before he resigned, notes that an employee “asked Mary-Kate if we can change the lock combination” because she was “concerned for her safety due to the Chief’s frequent angry outbursts and the fact that he may come back to the office.” The document says, “We will have the lock changed this week.”

In a statement, Fisher said that was “completely false” and that the lock change was a standard diplomatic security procedure. She said she was “not notified” about safety concerns.

Four former officials in that office said safety concerns about Lawler returning after his suspension were widely known.

After Lawler resigned, Fisher and Henderson succeeded him and had employees fill out a survey about the workplace environment. In an August 2019 email obtained by The Post, Fisher told staff members, “I recognize the past couple of months have been challenging.” More than 56 percent of the office staff participated in the survey and respondents “showed some discomfort with the presence of alcohol in the office and at official events,” the State Department said.

Fisher and Henderson said they “took the pro-active step of terminating alcohol at internal office functions . . . with the exception” of major official events and ceremonies. Other officials, however, said Henderson was partly responsible for the frequent presence of alcohol in the office.

“When Lawler would flare up and yell, Cam would bring him a drink, in front of everyone to calm him down,” said one official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “There would be full staff meetings when Lawler would sit at the head of the conference room and drink red wine — while no one else drank — saying it was the only thing that would calm him down.”

“Drinking was a usual reward to calm him down,” another official said.

Lawler said those allegations were untrue.

A State Department spokesperson did not rebut the specific allegation about Henderson encouraging Lawler to drink alcohol.

The IG report was addressed to Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun, but the official who responded was counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl, a confidant of Pompeo who often handles sensitive issues for him.