Forest Service chief faces challenge over #MeToo response

Culture of Forest Service scrutinized recently

By GREGORY WALLACE
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As the Forest Service struggles to recover from a #MeToo scandal, two survivors of workplace sexual harassment are at odds about whether the agency is doing enough to fix the problem.

(CNN) - As the Forest Service struggles to recover from a #MeToo scandal, two survivors of workplace sexual harassment are at odds about whether the agency is doing enough to fix the problem.

One is the agency's new leader, Vicki Christiansen, and the other is a former Forest Service employee who said at a public hearing in Washington, DC that Christiansen's efforts -- creating a complaint hotline and bringing in outside investigators -- won't prevent future incidents or undo a toxic workplace culture.

The new chief's "action plan falls short very short of addressing the problem identified here," said Shannon Reed, a former Forest Service air quality specialist who recounted her allegations of sexual assault and harassment during her testimony before the House Oversight Committee.

Christiansen, who formally took over the role in October, responded by describing her work to address a toxic culture for women at the agency that a 2018 inspector general report said stretches back decades.

The changes were triggered in part by the departure earlier this year of Christiansen's predecessor Tony Tooke, who resigned after reports that he was being investigated over claims of misconduct involving relationships with subordinates. He described the claims as inaccurate.

But a confrontation in a Capitol Hill hearing room this week shows the scale of the challenge facing government agencies as they try to address the problem of harassment at work.

Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service said the "standards ought to be higher" for government employees than for those in the private sector.

But, he added, the civil service faces trouble finding leaders who can implement changes that last. "By and large," Stier said, "they are not well supported by their leaders or the institutions they're working within."

The culture of the Forest Service has been repeatedly questioned in recent years in multiple lawsuits and a 2016 congressional hearing, as well as in reports by The New York Times and PBS.

Christiansen, who led the service in an interim capacity following Tooke's departure and formally took over the role in October, testified Thursday that she has established a complaint hotline, directed a deputy to improve the workplace environment, is reviewing the anti-harassment policy and has hired a third-party company to investigate claims of sexual harassment, rather than using Forest Service investigators.

While the toxic culture for women as described in the inspector report stretches back years, Christiansen says she has taken a zero-tolerance approach. She said investigators have substantiated sexual harassment in 58% of cases they've looked into.

As Christiansen spoke, Shannon Reed, a former forest service air quality specialist who says she experienced sexual assault and harassment at the agency, also sat at the witness table. On some occasions, she shook her head and said Christiansen's information was inaccurate.

"I can confirm that all 34 cases that were aired on PBS have been investigated. All of the allegations," Christiansen said.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Michigan Democrat, then turned to Reed. "Would you agree that every single claim that was brought forward has been investigated?" she asked.

"No, ma'am, I don't think they have been," Reed replied. "And by the way, I was one of the 34 so I know they haven't."

Reed testified that a supervisor fired her earlier this year in retaliation for reporting that he repeatedly assaulted and harassed her. That manager told CNN the allegations against him are false, but declined to elaborate.

Reed also described what she said was a 2016 assault by Tooke, then a senior manager who was subsequently appointed by President Donald Trump to lead the Forest Service.

Tooke resigned earlier this year after other allegations of misconduct were made against him. Several calls to his home on Thursday from CNN were not answered.

Reed is one of more than 100 current and former Forest Service employees who wrote in an open letter to Christiansen last week that the "new processes are designed to be check-the-box actions, with little actual intent to hold harassers accountable."

The letter says that in some cases Forest Service employees were required to attend team meetings on sexual harassment led by the "managers with harassment claims against them."

Reed said she joined the Forest Service after previously experiencing sexual harassment while working for the National Park Service. The park service did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday morning.

"Little did I know," Reed testified, "I was jumping from the frying pan to the fire."

She said she was assaulted by Tooke at the Forest Service orientation program for new employees. He was then a regional forester, a senior management role, and they were attending a dinner with about 25 other people at the training.

"We were standing in the foyer of the restaurant waiting to be seated. Mr. Tooke was standing behind me and he grabbed my butt," Reed said at the hearing. "He didn't say anything, he just had this creepy smile on his face like he got away with something. I was stunned but I didn't say anything. Several employees witnessed this and came over to me and protected me and they basically took care of me the rest of the week."

Tooke resigned in March 2018, after about seven months as Forest Service chief. In a statement announcing his resignation, he said some of the allegations against him were inaccurate, but said of those who came forward to make complaints, "I admire their courage."

Reed testified that she was later fired from the Forest Service after a supervisor repeatedly harassed and assaulted her. She said she declined his invitations to drinks and to a hot springs, and added that he once "called me at night and it was not for business."

She also said the supervisor "yelled at me, threatened me, spit in my face, inappropriately touched me, grabbed my phone from my hand."

Initially, Reed said, she did not file reports fearing retaliation and a negative relationship with the supervisor, but eventually did formally complain. She said she eventually received a poor performance review, was put in a probationary status and fired.

The supervisor, Jack Triepke, told CNN on Thursday Reed's allegations are "all false," and said he had been "cleared of all allegations through multiple complaints and investigations."

On several occasions during the hearing, Christiansen declined to comment specifically on Reed's experiences, or to say if she believed Reed's allegations.

She added that her own "past experiences fuel my commitment to the Forest Service."

"I have been in public service for my entire 38-year career as a forester and a wildland firefighter. I know what it means to encounter harassment and discrimination in my workplace," she said "I know the deep anguish it causes. I know how it feels to fear retaliation."

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