A federal ethics watchdog announced on Friday that it has opened an investigation into allegations of serial sexual harassment and retaliation against victims at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The agency’s inspector general said in a statement that it had opened the investigation at the request of the House Oversight Committee, which explored sexual harassment and retaliation allegations at EPA’s Region 5 in a hearing last year.
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"Senior EPA leadership systematically pursued retaliatory actions against employees involved in investigating sexual harassment cases," oversight committee staff said at the time. "These investigators allege that Susan Hedman, the Region 5 Administrator, was personally involved in retaliation against them."
The inspector general hopes "to determine whether Region 5’s policies and practices for handling sexual harassment complaints made through the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint process and human resources complaint process adhere to established policies and meet federal requirements."
At a July 2015 hearing, the oversight committee heard testimony from multiple former employees in EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office who said they had either witnessed or been informed of repeated instances of sexual harassment by an EPA scientist.
Ronald Harris, an equal employment opportunity officer at EPA, "found that multiple female employees had been involved and that such harassment by this scientist and it had been ongoing for the better part of a decade with the full knowledge of the managers of the division and involved many young female interns in their early to mid twenties," according to one official’s testimony.
EPA Assistant Inspector General for Investigations Patrick Sullivan revealed additional harassment complaints on an even larger scale in testimony submitted to the oversight committee in April 2015.
An intern alleged in 2014 that a senior EPA official made sexual advances toward her, including "brushing up against, attempting to kiss or grabbing [her] buttocks."
According to Sullivan, "OIG interviews determined that 16 additional victims who described examples of [the official’s] conduct toward them as unwelcome, including the following behavior: touching, hugging, kissing, photographing, and making double-entendre comments with sexual connotations."
EPA employees who filed official complaints about harassment at the agency were subjected to retaliation campaigns, witnesses at the committee’s July hearing said.
"That punishment has included having my primary duties stripped away from me, effectively being marginalized and ignored by the managers who had permitted the sexual harassment to occur until they were confronted by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) through an investigation in which I was instrumental in initiating," one recalled.
At the oversight hearing, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said she did not believe any retaliation had taken place.
"Clearly we had confusion in how we investigated it, but [the employees who alleged retaliation] were part of a large team that actually recommended removal of that employee," she told Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), chairman of the oversight committee.
As part of the inspector general’s investigation into the allegations, investigators "will identify the universe of sexual harassment complaints made over the last 5 years, select a sample, and review case files.
"We will also conduct interviews with management and regional staff to determine whether Region 5 followed applicable policies and practices, as well as complied with federal requirements," the inspector general’s office wrote.