EPA ignored sexual harassment for more than a decade, whistleblowers claim

Three whistleblowers told a House committee on Wednesday that managers at the Environmental Protection Agency turned a blind eye to allegations of sexual harassment for more than a decade.

Ron Harris, an equal employment opportunity specialist at the EPA, told the House Oversight Committee and Government Reform Committee that managers at a branch office in Chicago covered up complaints from at least 10 former employees and interns who filed complaints against a former EPA employee.

The complainants said the employee made inappropriate sexual advances, attempted to kiss them and referred to them as “sexy, sweetheart, sweetie, and darling.” The first complaints date back to 2002.

“It is so discouraging when they see management rewarded for bad behavior and ignoring clear signs of misconduct,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the committee. “This is not common, it’s not regular. But when it does happen, every red flashing light in the building better go off at every level.”

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Karen Kellen, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, said in her testimony that the EPA needs to develop a “feedback loop,” in which managers are held accountable to complaints that arrive on their desks.

“The bullies tend to be very good at managing upwards, so the senior leaders never see that behavior. They need to listen to the staff, and when you’re managing, you learn that there are some gripers, but when the problem expands beyond those few people who are always griping  to a larger group of people, you have to listen to the employees,” Kellen said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the committee, has introduced a bill, the Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination Act, which aims to hold managers accountable when discrimination or retaliation occurs in their department.

Cummings said he was outraged how long the allegations went ignored, adding that this hostile work environment keeps employees from doing their jobs.

“When you all are being retaliated against, that means that you cannot do the job that we’re paying you to do. Your effectiveness and efficiency is diminished. And so that’s a double whammy — not only do you suffer, but the taxpayers can’t get what we’re paying for,” Cummings said. “We have a way up here of maligning federal employees over, and over and over again. But the fact is we have some folks who are not doing the right thing … the management gets rewarded. But on the other hand, the rank-and-file, the folks getting in at 6 a.m. giving their blood, sweat and tears, they’re getting messed over.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said, during her testimony, she is working with the EPA inspector general to allow the agency to act sooner when an employee reports misconduct.

“While I firmly believe these employees are isolated examples,” McCarthy said, of the string of scandals involving EPA workers in recent years, “I believe we can always do better.”

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