On his first day as Interior Secretary last week, Ryan Zinke sent his 70,000 employees a stern email on ethics, warning them, “I expect us to do better” after a pattern of “lapses in judgment by a few employees.”
Days before his swearing-in, the agency’s watchdog published an investigation that disclosed a pattern of sexual harassment by a senior law enforcement official. How the alleged misconduct is addressed will test just how committed Zinke, the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress are to holding accountable employees who break the rules.
The law enforcement official, Tim K. Lynn, a senior executive in charge of Interior’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security, acted inappropriately toward six women, touching, hugging, text-messaging and flirting with them at the office and discussing “inappropriate” subjects, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall’s office reported last week. The women either work for Lynn directly or have worked with him and were not named in the report, which is standard procedure.
Lynn, a former law enforcement officer with the U.S. Forest Service and Secret Service, was recently promoted to senior executive in his current job leading the Interior law enforcement office, which acts as a liaison to the agency’s other enforcement agencies.
An agency spokeswoman said the department is reviewing Lynn’s case in order to decide what action should be taken. A top Republican lawmaker says that a decision should already have been made.
“This person should be fired and should have been some time ago,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Affairs, said of Lynn. “This is a new administration. If you want to send the right message, show zero tolerance and fire these people. It’s inexcusable.”
When confronted by investigators, Lynn denied the allegations, telling them that “touching people was in his nature and he had not intended to make [the woman] uncomfortable,” according to the report. He acknowledged that he had occasionally touched the woman and talked with her about personal subjects.
Investigators provided graphic detail about one of them, a direct report who told a high-level supervisor about Lynn’s allegedly unwanted behavior.
She described Lynn as a “touchy-feely type [of] guy” who would brush against her arm, squeeze her shoulders, administer “reflex checks” to her knees and occasionally wink at her during meetings, investigators found. At first she did not tell anyone about these actions since she was new in the office “and wanted to see if they were just part of Lynn’s personality or something more,” the report said.
Then last summer, the woman started to document the encounters because they made her more uncomfortable. Lynn came into her office once when she was alone, put his head on her shoulder and rubbed her hair, she said. Then he joked that she was “looking at porn.” She said she was not.
Another time, the woman said Lynn told her, “I’m going to tell you something very, very private,” then showed her a Facebook photograph of a woman he said was his dental hygienist and told her that his hygienist wanted him to be her “sugar daddy.”
She told investigators Lynn asked her if she had ever dated anyone she worked with. He once saw her in the office icing her leg after a bike ride, asked her if she was hurt, and then said: “Do you want me to be like your daddy and kiss your boo-boos all better for you?” When she declined, he continued, investigators said. “What’s the matter? Did your daddy never kiss your boo-boos for you?” he said. When she told him his comments were “weird and uncomfortable,” he replied: “I’m so sad that your daddy never kissed your boo-boos for you.”
Lynn once offered to have the woman stay at his house if she needed time away from her roommates.
The five other women who said Lynn harassed them came forward in interviews with investigators. Lynn admitted to some of his alleged actions toward them, but said he had not meant to make the women uncomfortable.
“He said that he probably did touch the employees, but not in a sexual way,” the report said. “Lynn told us that if he had tried to hug someone and they indicated that they did not want a hug, he would have respected that.”
Lynn did not return an email seeking comment. The Interior public affairs office did not respond to several requests to reach out to him for comment.
Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift, in a statement, said, “We are reviewing the matter outlined in the IG’s report to determine appropriate further action. The Department takes allegations of inappropriate behavior and retaliation very seriously and is committed to fostering an inclusive workplace where every employee is treated with respect.”
Investigators presented their findings to the Obama administration in late fall, a person with knowledge of the case said. After the woman reported Lynn’s behavior to a high-level supervisor, Deputy Assistant Secretary Harry Humbert, Humbert immediately counseled Lynn, telling him his behavior was unprofessional. The woman told investigators that after the counseling, the harassment stopped — but that Lynn openly criticized her in a meeting in what she says was retaliation.
Lawmakers in both parties have pressed for stronger action against such misconduct by federal employees. The Lynn case follows several high-profile sexual harassment cases at the National Park Service that have prompted congressional hearings and an agency-wide survey of Interior employees. The survey, prepared by the outgoing Obama administration to gauge how widespread harassment is, is ongoing, and the results will not be made public until the summer, officials said.
Few employees have been punished at Yosemite National Park or Canaveral National Seashore, where the inspector general’s office found a culture of sexual harassment in reports last year. An investigation of similar allegations at Yellowstone National Park is scheduled for release soon. The employees involved at Yosemite and Canaveral were allowed to retire or reassigned.
Interior has been dogged by other recent ethics issues that include a book deal by the former Park Service chief that was not reviewed by the agency’s ethics office; an apparent violation of federal law by a top Fish and Wildlife Service official who worked a side job as treasurer of a state wildlife regulators group that works closely with the agency; and the hiring of a relative and girlfriend by the director of the Bureau of Indian Education.
Republicans in particular have argued that these lapses require a faster path to holding employees accountable. President Trump, on the campaign trail, decried misconduct in the federal bureaucracy and pledged to take harsh action against misbehaving employees.
Chaffetz said he spoke with Zinke in recent weeks as the Senate was considering his nomination “about what the Oversight committee felt was an area of great concern at Interior.”
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group that has called on the Park Service to dismiss several employees accused of misconduct, said the Lynn case could require action from Zinke himself since his leadership team is not yet in place.
“At the moment, there are very few people between the secretary and Tim Lynn,” Ruch said. “This case is arguably more in Ryan Zinke’s hands than it would be six months from now.”
Ruch noted that previous Interior secretaries, including Sally Jewell under Obama and Dirk Kempthorne under George W. Bush, made similar pledges to punish employees who violated ethics rules.
Kendall’s office referred the Lynn case to officials at the Justice Department, but they declined to pursue criminal charges.