House committee vows to address discrimination and harassment in Forest Service

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard conflicting testimony Wednesday during a hearing on longstanding allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination within the Forest Service. The agency, part of the USDA, has faced litigation for discrimination and harassment against female employees for over 40 years.

Dr. Joe Leonard, the assistant secretary for civil rights at USDA, and Lenise Lago, deputy chief of business operations for the Forest Service, assured committee members that significant improvements had been made within their offices in recent years to address discrimination complaints, including revised policies and mandating investigation timelines.

But Lesa Donnelly, the vice president of the USDA’s Coalition of Minority Employees and a former Forest Service employee, along with Denise Rice, a fire-prevention technician with the Forest Service, insisted that the Forest Service still suffers from systemic disregard of employees’ discrimination complaints, and that the situation of employees had in fact worsened under the Obama administration.

Rice spoke in detail about discrimination she experienced at the hands of one male supervisor during her more than 20 years in the Forest Service. She recalled being afraid to report her experiences of harassment because filing a complaint was tantamount to committing “career suicide.” She said that after she did report his actions, the supervisor was given the option to retire with full benefits rather than be fired, and was later brought back to the department as a motivational speaker. Lago insisted that the speeches were a volunteer effort, and that the supervisor was not compensated by the Forest Service.

Members of the committee at times expressed deep frustration with the explanations being offered by Leonard and Lago. They pushed back against claims that USDA and the Forest Service had improved their handling of discrimination complaints. “There is something rotten in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service,” said Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a California Democrat.

The committee expressed particular concern about a letter sent from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) to President Obama in May 2015, which addressed employee allegations that discrimination complaints against high-level USDA officials were not reviewed in a timely manner. The complaint-review process is overseen by Leonard’s office at the USDA. The OSC review found that some 50 percent of complaints filed against senior USDA officials (112 complaints) were not reviewed in the legally required time frame, and that Leonard’s office had been “seriously mismanaged, thereby compromising the civil rights of USDA employees.” Committee members referred to this letter as “unprecedented.”

Donnelly is a longtime advocate for victims of discrimination and harassment within the USDA and the Forest Service. In 1995, she filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 6,000 women in California who alleged gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the Forest Service, which resulted in a settlement. In 2008, Donnelly testified before Congress to discuss multiple cases of assault and harassment of women working in the Forest Service, as well as retaliation against women who had filed complaints.

After two hours of questioning, members of the committee expressed their commitment to addressing these systemic issues. “No employee should ever be afraid to come to work,” said ranking member Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat. “We’ve got a lot more to do.”

Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, echoed those sentiments, promising Rice and Donnelly that Congress “will go to the end of the earth to protect you.”

Leah Douglas, a contributor to FERN’s Ag Insider, is a reporter and policy analyst with the Open Markets Program at New America.