Members of Congress took the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Forest Service to the woodshed Thursday, following years of sexual harassment and whistleblower retaliation complaints.

The bipartisan whipping followed tearful and disturbing testimony from a wild land firefighter about sexual abuse.

With a halting voice, Denise Rice, a fire prevention technician in California’s Eldorado National Forest, recalled a male supervisor who took a letter opener and “poked my breast, both breasts, with a smile on his face in an arrogant way, like he could get away with it.”

“I stood there in shock,” she said, her emotions welling. 

Her comments seemed shocking to members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at the hearing, especially when they learned the alleged harasser was allowed to retire without punishment, then returned as a motivational speaker. 

“We will not put up with this crap,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). “Really. This is unconscionable.”

Rice’s story is not unique.

“Numerous Department of Agriculture employees who were subject to sexual assault, harassment and discrimination also came forward to the committee,” said Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “The number of examples and despicable acts were quite horrifying. Some of these women had even been raped by coworkers, but refused to testify due to the threat of retaliation and having their careers destroyed.” 

Rice said her second-line supervisor “repeatedly sexually harassed me” from 2009 through 2011 “and he assaulted me in 2011.” She complained, but that only made things worse.

 “I filed a complaint and the instant I filed everything changed,” she said. “Management removed all of my supervisory responsibilities, moved me from my location, and isolated me.”

Chaffetz and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, were adamant in their assurances that the panel would shield employees who report wrongdoing.

“We want to do everything in our power to protect you,” Cummings said.

Often in congressional hearings, committee members who belong to the president’s party will provide cover for presidential appointees whose performance is questioned by the opposition. Democrats offered Joe Leonard Jr., Agriculture’s assistant secretary for civil rights, no such comfort. 

Democrats and Republicans grilled Leonard on a 2015 letter to President Obama from Carolyn N. Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel. It said Leonard’s office “should set the standard … for creating an environment free of discrimination. Rather than leading this effort,” it continued, Leonard’s office “has an unusually high number of complaints filed against its own leadership.”

I’ve known Leonard for years. He has long history as a civil rights activist. Yet his responses seemed officious and incongruous with Rice’s alarming testimony.

In his opening statement, Leonard said his office has made “significant progress” by cutting civil rights program complaints from four years to 18 months and by working with the Forest Service to strengthen and enhance compliance with sexual-harassment policies. Later, he cited his office’s numerous accomplishments since the 2015 letter and said the department has undergone a “generational change” in civil rights.

That didn’t satisfy Cummings, who said Leonard’s claim of progress was hard to reconcile with the employee’s testimony and complained that his office had not fully responded with information Cummings requested almost a year ago.

“I have been extremely frustrated and disappointed by the response I received from department officials,” Cummings said.

The disparity between Rice’s testimony and that of Agriculture Department officials “sounds like we’re talking about two different worlds,” Cummings said.

In that he included Lenise Lago, the Forest Service deputy chief of business operations. After Rice said the sordid details of her harassment were told to her colleagues, making her life “a living hell,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) asked Lago why Rice’s story was made public.

 “Per our protocol,” Lago said, explaining that should not have happened, “only people involved in the inves …”

Gowdy stopped her.

“I don’t want to be rude,” he said, “but I really don’t give a damn about protocol.”

Leonard’s statistics and Lago’s bureaucratic line about protocol harkened back to testimony by Lesa L. Donnelly, a former Forest Service employee who now is vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees.

“We have been reporting egregious incidents of sexual harassment, work place violence, discrimination, and reprisal to [Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack since 2009 to no avail. …” she said. “I received the same platitude as always, ‘There is zero tolerance for sexual harassment and workplace violence.’ It was lip service.”

The committee members emphasized they have zero tolerance for USDA lip service.

“I want to be absolutely clear, absolutely clear, that any retaliation against any witness before this committee or a victim of sexual harassment is totally, completely unacceptable and gravely concerns the committee,” Chaffetz said. “And I can promise you and assure you that Mr. Cummings and I, as well as members on both sides of this aisle, will fight and push and defend these people who are whistleblowers who are trying to do what is right for the country, trying to do what is right for them personally, and trying to do what is right for their fellow employees.”

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