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Forest Service Allegedly Shielded Man Accused of Sexual Harassment with Letter Opener

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On Thursday, former and current employees for the U.S. Forest Service testified before Congress over whether whistleblowers got backlash for reporting sexual harassment.

Denise Rice, a former USFS firefighter, testified that she was sexually harassed by a supervisor for about two years, but when she made complaints to management, they basically demoted her. As for the supervisor, she said that he was allowed to retire and even return to give motivational speeches.

The man prodded her with a letter opener after an argument in one incident, the visibly distressed Rice said. He “poked my breast, both breasts, with a smile on his face in an arrogant way, like he could get away with it.”

She also claimed that he corned her in the bathroom, “lifted my shirt up,” and stalked her over a period of time.

Her testimony begins just after 43:30. WATCH:

Lenise Lago, the Deputy Chief of Business Operations, fielded Congress’ questions on the USFS’s behalf. She said this was the first time she heard that Rice’s allegations were improperly made public, though she claimed she didn’t doubt Rice’s account. Things got heated fast, and she faced tense grilling from Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina), and Rep. Jody Hice (R-Georgia) about how the supervisor got away with retirement. She explained that the difference between resigning and getting fired is that if one does the former, the offense won’t show up on their record.

“You mean to tell me that someone can engage in the conduct that Ms. Rice just described and avoid all consequence whatsoever?” Gowdy said.

“Per the federal regulations: Yes,” Lago said.

Earlier in the hearing, she argued that her organization is getting better at handling complaints of sexual misconduct. Lago, who said she also faced sexual harassment before working for the government, explained that the misconduct branch of the USFS reports to her, and that they’ll continue to get better.

Lesa Donnelly, vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, disputed that.

“I wish I could say that there has been improvement,” she said. “One. One thing that has improved, and I can’t. Things have gotten worse.”

[Screengrab via U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform]

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