Months before U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke abruptly resigned, his superiors at the Agriculture Department were made aware of the scandal that brought an end to Tooke’s 30-year career.
As early as September, the office of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) informed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office of a letter from a Forest Service retiree who wrote that Tooke wasn’t deserving of the post he was appointed to by Perdue the month before.
Isakson’s office confirmed its receipt of the letter Thursday, a day after Tooke tendered his immediate resignation following a “PBS NewsHour” report that he was under investigation for improper behavior. A spokeswoman for Isakson would not reveal the letter’s contents, but Energy and Environment News and the Daily Caller each reported that it claimed that Tooke offered a newly created staff position to a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair when he worked at an office in Florida.
Agriculture officials appointed an independent investigator to look into the claim. The accusation against a top official is especially stinging because the agency is investigating dozens of harassment claims, particularly from women in its firefighting division.
PBS, as well as The Washington Post, interviewed women who claimed that they had been raped, spied on while showering, groped, berated, pressured to quit and retaliated against for reporting abuses. During the reporting of both stories, women firefighters who spoke to reporters later rescinded their comments for fear of losing their careers.
It’s not clear whether officials knew of the incident raised by the letter before Isakson contacted the Agriculture Department. Both the USDA and Forest Service, a division of Agriculture, declined to respond to requests to confirm the accuracy of the news reports. They also declined to answer whether Tooke’s record was vetted during the process that led to his appointment in August, and if the allegation was discussed with the appointee.
In congressional hearings, Forest Service officials have been castigated by lawmakers for the agency’s failure to seriously discipline harassers even after allegations were proven.
Lawmakers were livid when firefighter Denice Rice testified in December 2016 that a fire supervisor who repeatedly groped her at the Eldorado National Forest in California was a known bully and “womanizer to female employees for years, and nobody did anything about it.”
Even after Rice’s account that the supervisor tried several times to lift her shirt and followed her to the bathroom was confirmed, he was allowed to retire with full benefits. Women who filed claims, their attorneys and union representatives said Rice’s story was not unusual and that the Forest Service has a male-dominated culture of harassment and an executive office dominated by men who often failed to act.
Attorney Sarah Martin said discrimination happened to her client, Abby Bolt, when she returned to work from maternity leave. Bolt, a fire battalion commander at Sequoia National Forest, complained to supervisors after noticing that she was being treated differently than her male peers — less flexible hours, less favorable hours and no leave — but nothing was done.
Martin said Tooke’s appointment and resignation are a bad sign. “This shows that it’s top-down. This is a disregard for responsibility,” Martin said. “Abby did everything she was supposed to do … went to her supervisors, tried working with the union, went to the Equal Employment Office.”
Martin continued, “At each step she was ignored and pushed off. What was most egregious to me about Agriculture’s situation is the way her complaints were processed or not processed. How it just fell through the cracks. She was begging to be heard, and nothing was done about it,” Martin said. “Now they have it out for her.”
After Tooke was sworn in, he issued a statement laying out his priorities, saying that the first would be “ensuring our work environment is safe, rewarding, respectful, free of harassment.” He claimed to prefer “an environment where you are recognized and valued for your contributions. I want every employee to be empowered to continuously improve our work.”
In his final statement, an email to workers, Tooke acknowledged that he had lost the confidence needed to execute his duties. “I have decided that what is needed right now is for me to step down as Forest Service chief and make way for a new leader that can ensure future success for all employees and the agency,” he said.
Later in the statement, Tooke said: “The right leadership must be in place to create an atmosphere in which employees can perform their very best work. Each employee deserves a leader who can maintain the proper moral authority to steer the Forest Service along this important and challenging course.”
Perdue echoed Tooke’s statement: “In my experience, in order to effectively lead any organization, you must have the moral authority to inspire its members to work toward the goal of continuous improvement.”
Tooke had been with the Forest Service since he was 18, serving as an executive staffer in Georgia, Florida and Washington state before landing in Washington. His resignation has further staggered an agency that’s wallowing in harassment claims, and some wonder whether the latest one could have been avoided.
Writing for the blog Wildfire Today, Bill Gabbert, the managing editor and a former Forest Service firefighter, expressed outrage.
“This is a disgusting, demoralizing, distasteful, detestable scandal facing the agency where I spent 20 years,” Gabbert wrote. “Looking at the sheer numbers, and knowing that allegations of sexual misconduct go all the way to the top, it is hard to fathom how anyone who has been mistreated can be optimistic that the harassment will stop, or that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
“This has to be the Forest Service’s number one priority — clean up this wreckage that is festering within their workforce. Would you recommend that your sister, daughter, girlfriend, or spouse apply for a job with the U.S. Forest Service?”