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Forest Service chief tells Congress that progress on harassment ‘will take longer than any of us wants’

Earlier this year, the PBS NewsHour reported on sexual harassment and assault within the U.S. Forest Service, revealing a culture of abuse and retaliation. On Thursday, Chief Vicki Christiansen and a former employee who faced harassment testified before the House Oversight Committee about the problem and measures to address it. William Brangham joins Judy Woodruff for an update.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Earlier this year, we aired a story about sexual harassment and assault within the U.S. Forest Service.

    After speaking with dozens of women, the "NewsHour"'s reporting team revealed a culture of abuse and retaliation within the service. Women who spoke up about their mistreatment were then punished for doing so.

    The Forest Service has vowed to change.

    And William Brangham is here with an update.

    William, you were part of the original reporting on all this.

    So, today, Congress held an oversight hearing. The new head of the Forest Service was there to talk about how maybe some changes are happening. What did you hear?

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    This was Vicki Christiansen's new — her first hearing as the new chief. Remember, she took over this job because the prior chief, a man named Tony Tooke, stepped down just days after we reported that he, too, was also under investigation for sexual impropriety in the workplace.

    He steps down. Vicki Christiansen takes over amidst all of these allegations of a terrible sort of culture of abuse within the Forest Service. She vowed today to the House members that were present to make some changes.

    Here's what she said:

  • Vicki Christiansen:

    We must do more.

    Like you, we want, I want lasting results. Progress will take longer than any of us wants, but I'm determined to lead permanent change in the Forest Service. We will not rest until this agency provides the safe, respectful workplace our employees deserve.

  • William Brangham:

    So, she acknowledges that there are problems. She acknowledges that this is a culture-wide change that needs to occur.

    They said they have instituted some substantive changes, that they have changed how harassment claims get reported, how those claims get investigated. They now use private investigators, rather than people within the Forest Service themselves.

    They have instituted Forest Service-wide anti-harassment training, lots of individual changes they're making. But, as we have seen, it's already still a work in progress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what is your sense from your reporting of how all this is being received by the rank and file who work at the Forest Service?

  • William Brangham:

    : On some level, people are very, very happy. We have heard from a lot of people. We set up a tip line, if you remember, after our first series, at just Tipline@NewsHour.org.

    And many people wrote in saying, we are so glad that this is finally being talked about.

    But, at the same time, there are a lot of people who believe that these changes don't go far enough, that they're simply covering over — Band-Aid is a term we heard mentioned.

    Sixty different women signed an open letter. These were former and current Forest Service employees sent this letter to the chief saying that this culture still exists, the problems have not been addressed.

    And one witness today really echoed this point. Her name is Shannon Reed. She was a Forest Service employee from New Mexico, and she was fired recently. And she alleged a whole pattern of mistreatment towards her.

    Here's a little bit of what she had to say.

    And I should just warn our viewers that this — some very graphic language here, but this is what she said in an open House hearing today.

  • Shannon Reed:

    One co-worker threatened to bend me over and spank me. Another told me, in order to go to a fire assignment, I had to suck his (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

    Another co-worker told me that I would have to wear kneepads at a conference because I would be sucking so much (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

  • William Brangham:

    Obviously, Shannon Reed's story is just awful.

    The reforms that took place had started to happen while she was still there. She said one of those required her to tell the story of her abuse in a room where her alleged abuser was actually present.

    She was also someone who said she was sexually harassed by Tony Tooke, the former chief, while he was still in office. She was fired, she says, when she complained about that.

    So, needless to say, her testimony, especially in comparison to the reforms that Vicki Christiansen said were under way, really set some members of Congress off.

  • Rep. Trey Gowdy, S.C.:

    How in the hell can you have the perpetrator in the room with the victim? How does that happen? And what steps can be taken to make sure that doesn't happen?

  • Rep. Glenn Grothman, Ri-Wis.:

    I just think you're — you're going to slow. You really feel that people in that agency don't realize this behavior is wildly wrong?

  • Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M.:

    In addition to the hostile work environment that has been occurring there for decades, the culture of lying and misrepresenting, not only to members of Congress, but to your employees and co-workers and other departments, is also incredibly troubling and ongoing.

  • William Brangham:

    So, clearly, there's still a great deal of anger out there and a great deal of questions as to whether the Forest Service and how quickly they can actually change what they admit is this very troubling culture.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such a gap between what we heard in that testimony and what the head, the new head of the Forest Service is saying.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, a lot of questions, and I know you all are going to continue to report on this.

    Thank you, William.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome.

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