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.
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.
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.”