The six-month investigation that led to the report followed a string of congressional hearings and allegations from women employed by the Interior and Agriculture departments who said they have been routinely harassed by male superiors and co-workers, often in remote areas where park employees and wildfire fighting units work.
At a hearing in September, Kelly Martin, a fire chief at Yosemite National Park, described “a 30-year progression” of misconduct by men throughout her career, from 1987 to now, where she was spied on in showers, secretly photographed, and pinned against a wall by a man who tried to kiss her.
Women rarely complain, Martin told a House Oversight Committee, because “many … do not believe action will be taken.” Fear she said, is a deterrent. “The supervisory response to my three sexual harassment incidents was one of minimizing my experience and attempting to resolve the situation with a mere apology from the perpetrator instead of imposing more appropriate disciplinary action.”
The directive from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the agency’s latest attempt to change that. “I expect each DOI employee to cultivate a work environment of dignity and respect that a reasonable person would not find hostile,” Zinke said in a statement Thursday. “It is our individual and collective responsibility to ensure that our interactions with each other, contractors who support our mission, and the public are free of harassment, discrimination or retaliation.”
Like secretaries before him, Zinke said he expects all his employees to refrain from offensive behavior. “Bullying, degrading and intimidating behavior is not acceptable and serves to dishonor the mission and values of our department.”
But as lawmakers pointed out at a hearing in which they lambasted Agriculture Department officials for failing to act on a number of complaints, words and intent don’t change a near century of bad behavior.
Like Martin, who works for the Department of Interior, firefighter Denice Rice, who works at Eldorado National Forest for the Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, said discrimination is a normal part of her work life. At a separate House Oversight Committee hearing in December, Rice said a fire supervisor repeatedly groped her, confided that he dreamed of having sex with her and tried to lift her shirt.
When the Forest Service office that handles discipline learned of the incidents, they asked the perpetrator to retire, which he did, and he received full government benefits. Hearing that, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) exploded. “The guy should not only have been fired, he should have been arrested!” Palmer shouted at Lenise Lago, deputy chief of the business office at the Forest Service.
Class-action lawsuits, consent decrees carried out 40 years ago and directives from departmental leadership have yet to end bias and discrimination against women in the Interior and Agriculture departments, where employees work in some of the most isolated places in the country. Wednesday’s inspector general report grew out of a magazine article in which a worker at Yellowstone alleged that a maintenance supervisor hired a woman solely for sex and looked the other way when she appeared drunk on the job.
After interviewing 100 current and former employees, investigators determined that some complaints were inaccurate and unfounded. But some of the employee’s observations, such as misuse of credit cards and “men talking down to women,” checked out.
For example, one manager really did say, “We’re not hiring any women this year,” saying that the decision was aimed at protecting female employees. He said in an interview with investigators that his unit did not have “too good a record at this point in time,” regarding its treatment of women. “He did not want the ‘distraction’ of a woman there without direct supervision,” the report said.
“He told us, however, that he later changed his mind,” the report said. “He said he offered seasonal positions to two women, but they both declined. We confirmed this statement. As of the date of this report, the unit had no female employees.”