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Forest Service must change how it investigates sexual misconduct, report says

A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the U.S. Forest Service needs to improve its process of dealing with complaints of sexual harassment and other misconduct, specifically by hiring independent investigators to handle these complaints.

The report comes a day after U.S. Forest Chief Tony Tooke resigned his position following complaints of sexual misconduct. Last week, the USDA confirmed an investigation into his alleged misconduct.

The PBS NewsHour recently published an investigation into a wider culture of sexual harassment and retaliation in the Forest Service.

Thursday’s report, which was issued by the USDA Office of Inspector General, focuses largely on Region 5, which includes all of California. The OIG offered all employees in Region 5, the subject of a 2016 congressional hearing on sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the agency, an opportunity to be interviewed.

The report said that the Forest Service primarily uses internal investigators to perform sexual misconduct investigations, and recommended that the agency use independent contract investigators instead.

The review did not find direct evidence of biases by these internal investigators. But it concluded, based on interviews with 69 employees, and visits to four Forest Service locations, that there was mistrust in the system, and that “the practice of using internal investigators may deepen that mistrust.”

The Forest Service agreed with the OIG’s recommendations, but added that the agency is “uncertain” whether using only outside investigators will improve employee trust in handling these cases.

This is an interim report. The OIG said it planned to issue a final report in April, which will assess whether the agency has adequately addressed concerns of sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace.

The USDA also announced in an agency-wide email Thursday that Vicki Christiansen would serve as interim Chief of the Forest Service. Christiansen was serving as Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry for the agency. Prior to the Forest Service, she worked in forestry leadership in Arizona and Washington state.

In an email announcing her appointment, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said: “I understand that it has been a difficult week in the Forest Service. While challenges remain in fostering a workplace that is rewarding, responsive, and respectful, the Forest Service has taken concrete steps to improve the working environment for all employees,” citing the OIG report as one of those steps.

Since the NewsHour’s investigation into the wider culture at the Forest Service, we have received nearly 200 emails via a tipline announced on air and online. Many who wrote in said they were either present or former employees of the Forest Service who had experienced sexual harassment or gender discrimination, and retaliation when reporting these incidents.
The NewsHour also received emails from men saying these incidents were not isolated to women. Some also emailed to express their support for the agency and its staff.

Complaints about similar behavior also came in from people who worked at other land management agencies, including the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, as well from firefighters from at least two local fire stations in different parts of the country.

If you are in the U.S. Forest Service and want to share your experience, email us at tipline@newshour.org.

William Brangham and Lorna Baldwin contributed to this report.

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