Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William “Brock” Long said Tuesday he is directing senior leaders to determine how the agency “allowed harassment to go unaddressed” for years, leaving employees to deal with abusive bosses, retaliation and other prohibited workplace behavior.
Long said in a statement to The Washington Post he wants FEMA “to set the standard for how allegations of harassment should be handled across the federal government.” He made the comments after days of public silence following his unusual outing of misconduct allegations against former personnel chief Corey Coleman that are still under investigation. Coleman resigned in June, and his attorneys have denied the allegations and criticized FEMA’s investigation as “unreliable and faulty.”
Former administrator W. Craig Fugate, who ran the disaster relief agency for eight years during the Obama administration, said in an interview he was unaware of complaints about Coleman’s sexual relationships with subordinates, behavior that current agency leaders flagged as part of what they say was a long pattern of mismanagement and favoritism. Coleman’s lawyers, Jonathan Jeffress and Emily Voshell of Kaiser Dillon, said FEMA was trying to “demonize” Coleman.
But Fugate said that FEMA, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, “does not have the capability” to properly resolve workplace complaints because of a complicated and decentralized system for reporting issues.
“I don’t know what was filed, who filed it and where it went,” Fugate said of complaints against Coleman.
Buoyed by the Me Too movement and President Trump’s push to crack down on employee misconduct in federal agencies, Long two weeks ago launched an internal campaign he calls “Not on My Watch” to clean up a backlog of employee complaints and to identify harassing behavior within the workforce. Long and his senior staff have talked with FEMA employees in conference calls and town-hall meetings, including one attended last week by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
FEMA said the allegations against Coleman — detailed by Long and other officials in a July 30 interview with The Washington Post — have been turned over to the inspector general for Homeland Security. FEMA leaders declined to answer specific questions from The Post about Coleman and the broader sexual misconduct investigation while it is still underway. The agency also declined to make Long available for an interview, refused to provide a copy of the full preliminary report on the Coleman investigation and asked employees to refer any questions to the press office. Coleman’s attorneys called for the release of the full report.
FEMA has long ranked low among federal agencies on employee surveys of morale and for handling employee complaints of discrimination, harassment or other grievances in a timely manner. FEMA took 495 days on average to investigate discrimination claims (which include sexual harassment issues) in 2016, the last year for which the agency made data public under federal law. The law says the agency must investigate in 180 days.
Long said in his statement that he has taken steps to “begin implementing meaningful change within the agency.” And he stressed that he is “more committed than ever to eradicating harassment at FEMA.”
Allegations of mismanagement and slow hiring by Coleman’s department of roughly 300 employees began surfacing at FEMA as early as 2014, but Long said it was a direct complaint last year from a woman who said Coleman sexually harassed her that launched the current investigation. In the July interview, Long described a “toxic” workplace culture in the personnel office and suggested that the inquiry would examine the conduct of other senior leaders.
The investigation, which began in January and involved nearly 100 witness statements, has so far alleged that Coleman engaged in improper hiring practices, abusive conduct, retaliation and sexual relationships with subordinates, according to agency officials. A redacted document summarizing the findings stated that Coleman had sex with two subordinates, including one who said she was denied a promotion when she refused his advances and another who held a specially created position paid for by a fund reserved for disaster relief. Coleman’s attorneys said the report contains “any number of easily disproved falsehoods.”
FEMA has declined to offer details of Coleman’s alleged misuse of disaster money to fund a job for a sexual partner. Long said in the July interview that some of Coleman’s conduct could be criminal but offered no specifics.
Coleman’s management style, which some current and former FEMA employees described as bullying and retaliatory, also brought complaints.
“It wasn’t just sex harassment,” said one former employee. “Corey had everything funneling through him. . . . There were no checks and balances.”
Joseph Nimmich, who was deputy administrator from 2014 to 2017, called Coleman a “micromanager” who was “extremely controlling in terms of his decision-making.”
Kent Davis, a retired Navy rear admiral who was deputy superintendent of FEMA’s training center for weapons of mass destruction in Anniston, Ala., said he complained to FEMA in 2014 about contracting improprieties, a lack of diversity in hiring and promotions, and a slow hiring process that was causing operational problems.
“We started having massive personnel issues,” Davis said. “All of our hiring actions had to go through Coleman’s office. It was taking a year or more to get people hired, they were so inefficient.”
After hearing nothing, he said, he raised the issues again in 2015 with local Anniston officials and federal lawmakers.
Davis said Coleman and another senior FEMA official, Kathleen McDonald Fox, flew to Anniston, berated him and told him he was under administrative review for improperly complaining to members of Congress. Davis quit the job and is now back at the Defense Department. Coleman’s attorneys said he disputes Davis’s account.
Despite complaints, however, Coleman won promotions and agency visibility. In 2013, he was elevated from deputy to chief personnel officer and had a $177,150 salary, according to online records.
Coleman made as many as 100 temporary hires over two years that are now under review at the agency.
The inspector general’s office said it received complaints in 2016 and 2017 that Coleman was favoring certain job candidates and hiring unqualified workers.
Fox, now the assistant administrator for the National Preparedness Directorate, acknowledged to her staff the day after Coleman’s case was made public that his mismanagement of personnel issues had been widely known within the agency, according to two employees who watched her speak in a July 31 conference.
She told employees that officials felt powerless to address the problems, the listeners said.
Alice Crites, Arelis Hernández, Julie Tate and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.