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Letter to Congress sheds light on misconduct allegations that led to U.S. Forest Service chief’s resignation

In August, days after Tony Tooke was announced as the new chief of the U.S. Forest Service but before it became official, a retired senior Forest Service employee sent a letter of concern to a congressional committee alleging that Tooke maintained a sexual relationship for two years with a young subordinate and then promoted her up through the ranks. The letter also alleged intimidation, saying that after Tooke was told to cease communication with the young woman, he contacted her to say if she talked more about the affair, her career “would go down.” That account was confirmed by the subordinate’s supervisor.

“The sexual misconduct, alone is troubling enough,” the retired employee wrote. “Mr. Tooke’s immediate actions and nature of contact with the employee afterwards are even more disturbing.”

Seven months later, the Forest Service said the USDA, its parent agency, had engaged an independent investigator to look into complaints about Tooke’s behavior. Tooke announced he would step down in an email to staff Wednesday evening, days after a PBS NewsHour investigation into sexual harassment and retaliation in the Forest Service. The USDA did not respond to request for comment about whether that investigation would continue after his resignation.

On Thursday, the USDA released a report that said the Forest Service needs to improve its process of dealing with complaints of sexual harassment and other misconduct.

William Brangham joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest developments in this story.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service stepped down, following a "NewsHour" investigation into allegations of a culture of sexual misconduct and retaliation within that agency, as well as questions about the chief's own behavior.

    William Brangham is here now for more on what this means for the service going forward.

    William, welcome.

    So, Tony Tooke is his name, the chief of the Forest Service. He's out. What more can you tell us about what's behind this?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, last fall, Tony Tooke was nominated to head the U.S. Forest Service.

    And, at that time, a senior retired official from the Forest Service wrote a letter to Congress where she said, you need to be aware of some of Tony Tooke's past behavior.

    And the allegation was that Tooke had had a consensual extramarital affair with a subordinate when he was working in Florida. Tooke allegedly created a special position for this woman, and then promoted her up through the ranks.

    And according to this letter, which we have a copy of, when the affair was discovered by the young woman's supervisor, Tooke was told, stop communicating with her. But, apparently, he didn't.

    Here's a direct quote from that letter, "Mr. Tooke not only contacted the female employee. He told her not to say anything more about their sexual relationship or her career would go down."

    That's a pretty clear allegation of sexual misconduct and intimidation on his part. We've spoken to the letter writer and to this woman's supervisor. And we asked the Forest Service about this during the course of our reporting.

    They acknowledged there was an investigation going on into his past. And then our stories ran online and on the broadcast.

    And, this week, Tony Tooke stepped down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in addition, there were other new developments this week.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    We have a new interim chief at the U.S. Forest Service. Her name is Vicki Christiansen. She is a seven-year veteran of the Forest Service. Prior to that, she was working forestry in Washington and in Arizona.

    And she sent out an e-mail to every Forest Service employee that said, in part,"We have had to face some hard truths about allegations of harassment and retaliation in our agency. I know we are up to the task."

    Additionally, we got word today that Congress wants to start looking into this. Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California and Montana Senator Steve Daines said they want to hold hearings to look into this broader culture of sexual harassment within the Forest Service.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, William, you and your team have been hearing from inside the Forest Service community throughout this.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    We set up a tip line that appears on our Web site. And we have gotten dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of e-mails from people, former and current employees. Many of them echo the complaints that were voiced in our stories, which was a culture of harassment and those who speak up about the harassment get battered down for it.

    We heard from some men who also said, we suffer from harassment as well.

    We also heard from other people who said, I don't recognize what you reported. That's not the Forest Service that we experienced.

    I would like to read you an excerpt from one letter from one woman who has been in the Forest Service for 25 years. She works in the Midwest, still in the Forest Service. And her letter echoed the feelings of a lot of letters that we heard.

    Quote, "Your article was difficult for me to read. And watching the footage on your show was harder yet. Sexual harassment is embedded into our wildland fire culture. You should know that you got the men in my office to sit up and listen. Most of them were shocked that women view our workplace in that light. Your article has given my co-workers and I a starting point to discuss these issues. I hope the women who have had the courage to speak out realize that they have given us the opportunity to make things better."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's a shame that it takes something like this to bring people to better awareness, but, again, extraordinary reporting.

    Thank you, William.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome.

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