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House reps worried about sexual misconduct at the Forest Service

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General recently released a report critical of the U.S. Forest Service, which it oversees. The report evaluated whether the Forest Service responded adequately to complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct in its Pacific Southwest region between 2013 and 2017. It found several serious deficiencies.

Now, three House Representatives have issued a statement expressing deep concern about whether the Forest Service is truly committed to addressing the problem. In the statement, reps Elijah E. Cummings, Raúl Grijalva and Jackie Speier called sexual misconduct at the Forest Service "an urgent matter and a top priority for us this Congress."

The Forest Service has repeatedly been the subject of complaints about sexual harassment, misconduct and assault. The USDA OIG reviewed 125 complaints from the Pacific Southwest region alone, 11 of which were considered substantiated.

Perhaps most troubling, the inspector general found that on at least two and perhaps three occasions, Forest Service supervisors knew that certain employees had prior histories of sexual harassment complaints but failed to inform hiring managers about those histories. Those employees went on to be hired into supervisory jobs in other regions.

In four of the 11 substantiated cases, the OIG discovered that the action taken by the Forest Service was less than the penalty recommended by the USDA's Guide for Disciplinary Penalties. The Forest Service was technically within its rights to deviate from the recommended penalty, but in these cases officials failed to document their justifications adequately.

Finally, in 18 of 125 sexual harassment or misconduct complaints, Forest Service Officials failed to report the allegations within 24 hours, as is required. Furthermore, in 13 of those 18 cases, the Forest Service failed to take any action against the officials who did not make timely reports. According to the OIG, this was both because Forest Service managers and supervisors did not appear to know about the 24-hour reporting requirement and because the Forest Service had no specific guidelines on what should happen when officials fail to make timely reports.

Among other things, the OIG recommends that the Forest Service:

  • Create training and guidance on properly responding to reference checks and on the 24-hour reporting requirement
  • As specific questions about applicants' prior histories of sexual harassment and other complaints when performing reference checks
  • Create disciplinary guidelines for when officials fail to report misconduct complaints within 24 hours
  • Create internal guidelines on how to justify a deviation from the established disciplinary guidelines recommendation

If you have experienced or been accused of sexual harassment, misconduct or assault at the Forest Service or any federal agency, contact an attorney experienced in federal employment law for assistance.

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