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Interior chief: ‘Culture’ of sexual harassment probably pervades the National Park Service

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell speaks in Las Vegas in 2013. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)
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Interior Secretary Sally Jewell acknowledged Tuesday that recent reports of sexual harassment in the National Park Service are probably “just the tip of the iceberg” and predicted that new attention to the issue will unearth cultural problems throughout the system.

“I’m sure that as we investigate this, we will find there is a bigger issue, a culture that allows these things to go on that needs to change,” Jewell said on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show,” where she was a featured guest to discuss the Park Service centennial.

[As National Park Service confronts sexual harassment, this dysfunctional park is Exhibit A]

Tuesday’s interview was Jewell’s first public comment on a sexual-misconduct crisis roiling the Park Service. Allegations of widespread harassment of employees in at least two parks have prompted investigations, congressional hearings and calls from several Republican lawmakers for Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis to resign.

Jewell, whose agency oversees the Park Service, told Rehm that she is “not proud” of the findings of several investigations by the Interior Department inspector general, who concluded that multiple women at Grand Canyon National Park and Canaveral National Seashore were repeatedly propositioned for sex and were targets of unwanted attention by male employees, some their supervisors. Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall is investigating similar alleged misconduct in at least one other park.

“But I am proud of the fact that we are going to deal with it and deal with it immediately,” Jewell said.

At a committee hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz questions the "zero tolerance" NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis claims to have for sexual harassment within his agency. (Video: House Oversight & Government Reform Committee)

The Washington Post last week documented a toxic culture at Canaveral, a small, secluded park in Central Florida where the inspector general’s office has done four investigations since 2012. The latest, released in June, disclosed a pattern of unwanted advances, attention and inappropriate remarks to female subordinates by the chief law enforcement officer and another manager. Both are still employed by the park.

[Female Park Service employees say they were propositioned, groped and bullied on Grand Canyon river trips]

Jewell did not elaborate on how her agency is going to deal with sexual harassment, but the Park Service is starting face-to-face training for managers and employees for the first time and plans to survey its workforce to gauge how widespread the problem is.

[Interior chief warns 70,000 employees: Sexual harassment ‘completely out of line with our values’]

Jewell, the former president and chief executive of outdoor-equipment retailer REI, said she understands the vulnerability of women in male-dominated workplaces firsthand: Now 60, she faced it early in her career as a petroleum engineer.

“For many of us who’ve been in the workplace for a long time, we’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment, hazing rights of passage that have made us really uncomfortable,” Jewell told Rehm. “Certainly as an engineer starting out in the oil and gas industry, I know what that feels like.”

She said the largest obstacle to addressing “the bigger question of how do you make it clear what behavior is and isn’t acceptable” is poor leadership, particularly since many Interior Department employees work in remote locations in small teams where women are more vulnerable.

“What needs to change is really a function of leadership,” Jewell said. “It’s painting a picture of what is behavior that people aspire to be a part of and what is unacceptable behavior, so individuals will report, but the work group will stop it, nip it in the bud if they see something happening.”

She described the ideal leader as one who “can set a positive direction where people want to see themselves in that picture, who take actions and provide consequences when there are violations.”

[Lawmakers say Park Service chief oversees culture of harassment]

It was unclear whether she was referring to Jarvis, who took a drubbing on Capitol Hill in June for what lawmakers called a lumbering response to allegations of sexual harassment at both parks.

After that hearing, Jewell warned 70,000 Interior Department employees against sexual misconduct, saying it is “completely out of line with our values.”

“We know this is really important to jump on, and we are jumping on it,” Jewell said Tuesday.