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Friday, December 2, 2016

Culture of Sexual Assault Allowed Within National Fire Service

December 1, 2016
Scott Anthony

Washington, D.C. -Today, the House Oversight Committee (Full Committee) heard heartbreaking testimony from at least one female Fire Fighter (Denice Rice) within the Forest Service (part of the USDA) who has suffered an ongoing sexual assault from her direct supervisor.  This hearing however, was different from most others;  this time, both Republicans and Democrats worked in lock-step to hammer away at witnesses from the USDA who have had multiple complaints lodged against it.  The USDA operates the critical National Forest Service, who has the serious task of taming wildfires through some of the most dangerous territory in our Nation.

The details of this ongoing assault were actually shared with the Daily Caller reporting:

"Rice alleges that starting in 2009, a new male supervisor, Mike Beckett, began to stalk her at work, touch her inappropriately, constantly sext her on a government cell phone, and routinely made unwanted advances at her. She didn’t file a formal complaint until 2011.

Rice contends that not only did Villalvazo look the other way while the assaults and harassment occurred, but for the first six months following her report, he buried the investigation. Only after Rice reached out to Donnelly did the investigation move forward, she said.

Beckett retired from the USDA on March 29, 2012. According to an affidavit from Eldorado National Forest Supervisor Kathy Hardy, the retirement occurred before Beckett’s investigation was complete.

“On February 28, 2012 I received a copy of the administrative inquiry report,” Hardy wrote. “I did not take time to read the report (it was about 4-5 inches thick), but immediately turned it over to Mr. Rick Hopson, Amador District Ranger, so he could prepare the proposed action. He completed his Proposed Removal on March 15, and submitted it for review by the RO and Department. The proposal was never delivered to Mr. Beckett because Mr. Beckett retired from the FS on March 29, 2012 before the proposal was approved.”

Among others Rice has experienced what some are labelling a "Rape Culture" or "Culture of Sexual Assault" whereby women who are equally qualified for positions within the Forest Service / Fire Service are harassed, passed over or outright bullied out of promotions, or even merely enjoying the positions they love to do.  As such, there was a formal investigation initiated by the Office of Special Counsel, who, in her findings, found such appalling findings that the Special Counsel felt compelled to write a detailed account of those findings directly to President Barack Obama.

This is not a normal occurrence have have occur.  Normally, recommendations by Special Counsel are referred to other investigating agencies such as the Office of Inspector General, and only a handful of times in recent history has findings such as this been directly delivered to our Commander-In-Chief.  This should indicate to almost anyone, that the findings of a "Rape Culture" are not only present, but likely prevalent.  And the findings not only outlined sexual misconduct, but other areas of concern that needed immediate review by the USDA Office of Equal Employment Opportunity with recommendations for corrections.

This is an ongoing story, and will be followed up by FNN as this claim, and many like it, are likely just the tip of the iceberg (although we hope it's not).

Takeaway Points From November 1, 2016 Hearing:

  • Harassment and discrimination at USDA has gotten worse under the Obama Administration. Witnesses testified sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, and resulting retaliation has increased at the Agency since 2008.
  • Whistleblowers shared personal heartbreaking accounts of sexual harassment, hostile work environments, and discrimination.
  • Forest Service has shown a lack of accountability and a poor record of investigating allegations of sexual harassment with perpetrators often escaping discipline by retiring, moving, or seeking a promotion.
  • The Office of Special Counsel found that the USDA Office of Civil Rights (OASCR) is “seriously mismanaged, thereby compromising the civil rights of USDA employees.”
  • Forest Service requested Congressional assistance to simplify the process of firing federal employees.
  • To address misconduct, sexual harassment, and disparate treatment of women within Forest Service.
  • To examine the USDA’s management of its OASCR and handling of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints.
  • Forest Service has faced criticism and media reports over egregious cases of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
  • Many women describe a work environment where there is a lack of accountability and a fear of retaliation for reporting such behavior.
  • USDA has been questioned over its management of OASCR and its handling of EEO complaints. Reports have found that OASCR was significantly late in processing EEO complaints, among other issues.
  • In March 2016, current FS employee Denise Rice courageously shared her heartbreaking experience of being sexually harassed at the Agency.

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