WASHINGTON (AP) — Two months after uncovering rampant sexual harassment, bullying and other misconduct at the National Park Service, a House oversight panel says similar problems plague the Forest Service.
A longtime employee at California's Eldorado National Forest said Thursday that the Forest Service "is rigged against women for reporting sexual harassment or assault," adding that male supervisors who harass or assault women are rarely disciplined.
Denice Rice, a fire prevention technician, told the House Oversight Committee that a supervisor who harassed and assaulted her was allowed to retire with full benefits, then was rehired as a contractor and even selected to give a motivational speech to an elite firefighting group.
"Rehiring this predator was a message to me and other employees that the agency did not feel he did anything wrong," Rice said. "I felt devalued and as if I didn't matter."
Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, called the agency's treatment of Rice "offensive" and said it echoed widespread problems uncovered at the park service, especially among firefighters.
The oversight panel heard testimony in September about frequent sexual harassment, bullying and other misconduct at national parks across the country, including at iconic sites such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. At Yosemite, at least 18 employees complained about harassment so severe that a recent report labeled working conditions at the park "toxic."
Park Superintendent Don Neubacher retired weeks after the hearing amid allegations of mismanagement, as did his wife, Patty, a deputy regional director for the Pacific West Region, which covers 56 national parks in six states.
Following the Sept. 22 hearing, lawmakers were deluged with "stories of harassment, discrimination and retaliation," Chaffetz said, not only at the park service, but also at the Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.
"The number of examples and despicable acts were quite horrifying," Chaffetz said. "Some of these women had even been raped by co-workers but refused to testify due to the threat of retaliation and having their careers destroyed."
Chaffetz called the behavior "an immediate crisis" that needs urgent action.
"While many changes are still needed, the Park Service has begun the process to deal with their cultural problems and removed some bad managers from their positions of leadership," Chaffetz said. By contrast, the Forest Service has "a deep-seated cultural problem that has not necessarily been addressed," he said.
Lesa Donnelly, a former Forest Service worker who now works with agency employees on workplace issues, said she has reported "egregious incidents of sexual harassment, work place violence, discrimination and reprisal" to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack since 2009 to no avail. The Agriculture Department oversees the Forest Service.
Forest Service investigations "invariably are turned against the employee reporting incidents," Donnelly said. "Reprisal is swift and severe."
A spokeswoman for Vilsack denied that and said "USDA has taken unprecedented actions" in recent years to combat harassment and bullying.
"USDA, including the U.S. Forest Service, has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workforce," said spokeswoman Catherine Cochran. "We take all complaints seriously and take assertive measures ... up to terminating employees when wrongdoing is confirmed."
Over the past three years, 67 Forest Service employees have been cited for sexual misconduct, including 21 who were fired and 28 who were suspended, Cochran said, citing statistics provided by the Forest Service. Eighteen employees received discipline ranging from a letter of reprimand to reassignment, demotion or resignation, she said.
While women comprise about 35 percent of the agency's 40,000 workers, the number of female firefighters remains significantly below that, said Lenise Lago, deputy chief of business operations for the Forest Service.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said sexual harassment and assault of female workers is commonplace at the Forest Service.
"Paraphrasing from William Shakespeare, there's something rotten in USDA and the Forest Service, and it's been going on for 40 years," Speier said.
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