WASHINGTON (CN) – Members of Congress voiced outrage Thursday while listening to a firefighter tell stories of sexual harassment she experienced at the hands of a supervisor and how the U.S. Forest Service responded to her complaints.
The firefighter, Denise Rice, had just given tearful testimony this morning before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee when a Forest Service official took the floor to detail progress that the agency has made.
“I want to assure you, we investigate all allegations, we hold people accountable,” said Lenise Lago, deputy chief of business operations for the U.S. Forest Service. “We publish the results so the rest of the workforce knows what we’re doing, so it’s visible and transparent. And we train and train and train our workforce on acceptable behavior, our leaders on acceptable behavior and the procedures in the event they experience unacceptable behavior.”
But the members of the committee pushed back, saying Lago’s explanations did not justify the cultural problem that she herself acknowledged has existed for decades at the Forest Service.
“Well, I just heard the most glowing account of all the improvements that have been made over the past eight years, and you mean to tell me that someone can engage in the conduct that Ms. Rice just described and avoid all consequence whatsoever,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said during the hearing.
The conduct Rice described included a supervisor who “stalked” her, cornered her in bathrooms and once poked her breasts with a letter opener during an argument in his office.
Rather than being fired, Rice said the supervisor was allowed to retire and was even brought back as a motivational speaker at a Forest Service event.
“My life is a living hell,” Rice said.
The firefighter began to cry while recounting how the agency responded to her complaint, saying it made her feel responsible for the “destruction” of the organization.
“I was being attacked by the ones who were supposed to protect me,” Rice said, noting that her allegations were made public within the agency.
Lesa Donnelly, who works for an independent Forest Service employee-resource organization, said the agency is notorious for retaliating against women who bring allegations of sexual harassment by their supervisors.
“People have children, they have mortgages, and women will suffer in silence rather than lose their jobs,” Donnelly said. “It is a disgrace.”
The Forest Service official Lago spent much of the hearing defending why the agency let Rice’s supervisor retire instead of removing him from office. She said federal rules required the agency to give him the option and noted Rice could still sue him even if he couldn’t receive formal punishment from the agency after retiring.
Gowdy was not satisfied with this response, especially Lago’s claim that it would be against protocol to make public the details of a specific complaint as Rice claimed happened in her case.
“Listen, I don’t want to be rude, but I really don’t give a damn about the protocol,” Gowdy said.
Lago also took heat from Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., later in the hearing after she admitted she was “not totally sure” what offense an employee would have to commit without being given the opportunity to retire instead of being removed.
“This is not new; you are not just finding about these cases now,” Hice said. “You’ve known about these cases for a long time, by your own testimony. And yet here you sit before us today and state that you still don’t even know the law as to what your rights are to remove people from office.”
Despite Lago’s repeated insistence that the agency has improved its response to sexual harassment and misconduct in recent years, Donnelly said she has seen no such progress.
“I wish I could say that there has been improvement,” Donnelly said. “One. One thing that has improved, and I can’t. Things have gotten worse.”