The U. S. Department of Agriculture headquarters on the Mall, shown in 2015. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The event at the Agriculture Department’s headquarters started like many others honoring Black History Month, but no one imagined how it would end.

Rosetta Davis was among the employees listening to the program on Thursday, but she wasn’t like the others. She couldn’t take the talk about USDA being a good place to work. The emotional toll of sexual harassment and feeling her agency didn’t care could no longer be contained.

At one point during the program, which employees said was televised to department facilities across the country, Davis unexpectedly took the stage and alleged to her colleagues in emotional and specific terms how she was sexually harassed on the job. She described how a supervisor, whom she named, offered to give her a promotion to grade GS-13 in exchange for sex.

The supervisor and others are named in a lawsuit she filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Davis alleges USDA managers retaliated against her because of her equal employment complaints against the agency and her involvement in an investigation of whistleblower complaints involving the department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.

Davis acknowledged she submitted to the supervisor’s advances in hopes of getting promoted. “I agreed to the sex,” she said in an interview.

Shortly after the program, she received a letter placing her on paid administrative leave. She was told not to use any agency facilities, not even voice mail. Furthermore, the letter added, “you and your family or close associates are prohibited from contacting any USDA employees at work or at home, to discuss any matters associated with your employment with USDA.”

Curiously, the letter indicates Davis was not placed on leave because of what she did but, apparently, because of what she might do.

“This action is not a disciplinary action, rather is taken as a precautionary measure pending further review of occurrences in the workplace on February 15, 2018,” said the letter from Thomas A. Mulhern, USDA’s director of human resources.

The notion that the leave is not a disciplinary action is “a joke,” contended Yaida Ford, Davis’s lawyer with Ford Law Pros in the District. “It’s clearly punitive in nature, and it’s retaliatory in nature.”

During the interview, Davis said she told the audience, “I need help.” Choking up as she spoke during a telephone interview, she added that she saw people, including those she named, holding their heads in their hands as she spoke. “I said, ‘Don’t hide your faces now.’ ”

USDA declined to comment on the “occurrence” or to make available the supervisor with whom Davis said she had sex.

“We cannot comment on personnel issues or issues that are currently the subject of litigation,” said a department statement. “However, as a matter of departmental policy, USDA takes all claims of harassment very seriously. Our goal is to treat people fairly with a process that is transparent, objective, and consistent.”

That’s not how Davis feels, and she didn’t hold back in describing her treatment.

“She was kind of dramatic,” said one employee who attended the program. Fearing management retaliation, the staffer spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Her presentation left the audience “shellshocked,” said the employee. “It was something you would not imagine in a setting like this.” Several women went to comfort Davis, but the audience could still hear her shouting as she was led backstage. After that, the program ended.

Davis, a 53-year-old African American District resident, joined the department in 2001. She contends USDA violated equal-employment laws and regulations and has filed several Equal Employment Opportunity complaints. She stopped the sexual relationship with her supervisor after eight months when she says the supervisor wanted an act she considered unnatural.

“Immediately after ending [the relationship], she became the target of aggressive sexual harassment and brutal retaliation,” the lawsuit says. “She never received the promotion.”

Davis’s court brief filed in April says she was involuntarily transferred after she ended the relationship and her position was reclassified “at least three times in order to thwart her efforts to obtain a promotion.”

Another manager, her brief says, asked her “to make illegal purchases … using government funds” and alleges management interference “with her participation in a whistleblower investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.”

The special counsel’s investigation found systemic problems with the way the department dealt with civil rights complaints.

In a 2015 letter to President Barack Obama, Carolyn Lerner, who was then special counsel, criticized USDA for slow-walking civil rights complaints against top managers. A USDA report substantiated allegations by whistleblowers and concluded that “almost 50 percent of civil rights complaints filed against high level USDA officials were not acted on within the legally required time frame.”

The department’s civil rights office was “seriously mismanaged, thereby compromising the civil rights of USDA employees,” Lerner wrote.

USDA says that’s all in the past.

“Prior to January 20, 2017, USDA averaged 236 days to process EEO complaints; well above the 180-day processing time required by law,” the department said in a statement to The Washington Post. “By the end of fiscal year 2017, USDA reduced its average processing time to 177 days and are continuing to make improvements. Under Secretary [Sonny] Perdue’s leadership, EEO administrative claims are being investigated in a more timely manner so that we can ensure an environment of mutual respect and fairness.”

For Davis, mutual respect and fairness now is a foreign concept at USDA. But despite all her difficulties on the job, she looks forward to improvement when — and if  — she returns to work.

“Prayerfully,” she said, “I hope it will be much better.”

Read more:

Federal agency reports show ‘continuum of harm’ from workplace sexual misconduct

Forest Service slammed over sexual-harassment and civil rights complaints

More diversity might have served USDA well in Sherrod fiasco