IG: Mishandling of sexual harassment complaints at Justice Department a 'systemic' problem
By SARI HORWITZ | The Washington Post | Published: December 26, 2017
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has "systemic" problems in how it handles sexual harassment complaints, with those found to have acted improperly often not receiving appropriate punishment, and the issue requires "high level action," according to the department's inspector general.
Justice supervisors have mishandled complaints, the IG said, and some perpetrators were given little discipline or even later rewarded with bonuses or performance awards. At the same time, the number of allegations of sexual misconduct has been increasing over the past five years and the complaints have involved senior Justice Department officials across the country.
The cases examined by the IG's office include a U.S. attorney who had a sexual relationship with a subordinate and sent harassing texts and emails when it ended; a Civil Division lawyer who groped the breasts and buttocks of two female trial attorneys; and a chief deputy U.S. marshal who had sex with "approximately" nine women on multiple occasions in his U.S. Marshals Service office, according to investigative reports obtained by The Washington Post under a Freedom of Information Act request.
"We're talking about presidential appointees, political appointees, FBI special agents in charge, U.S. attorneys, wardens, a chief deputy U.S. marshal, a U.S. marshal assistant director, a deputy assistant attorney general," Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said in an interview.
On May 31 – before the issue exploded into the national consciousness – Horowitz sent a memo about sexual harassment to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
"When employees engage in such misconduct, it profoundly affects the victim and affects the agency's reputation, undermines the agency's credibility, and lowers employee productivity and morale," Horowitz wrote. "Without strong action from the Department to ensure that DOJ employees meet the highest standards of conduct and accountability, the systemic issues we identified in our work may continue."
Rosenstein said he would review the IG's memo and consider whether additional guidance to Justice employees was required to ensure all misconduct allegations are handled appropriately.
"It is fortunate that there are relatively few substantiated incidents of sexual harassment, but even one incident is too many," Rosenstein said in a statement at the time.
When contacted by The Post, Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said Rosenstein has convened a working group to consider the issues raised by Horowitz and will soon respond to the IG with recommendations.
In August, a group of 17 Justice Department employees also wrote Rosenstein, saying that some of them had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at the department. In the letter, the DOJ Gender Equality Network, which has hundreds of members throughout the department, said it wanted to help Rosenstein's office formulate steps to achieve a "zero tolerance" environment.
"We are aware of the letter and are taking steps to receive their input," Prior said.
While Horowitz's office investigates the allegations, it is the department that decides on any discipline. In several cases, Horowitz said Justice Department attorneys who were accused of sexual misconduct were not disciplined appropriately and in some cases were later given awards or bonuses.
"We were troubled to learn that subjects of pending sexual misconduct investigations or individuals who had been recently disciplined for sexual misconduct still received performance awards," Horowitz said.
Some of the most troubling allegations, Horowitz said, have been in the Justice Department's Civil Division. His office examined the handling of those allegations after receiving a complaint that the Office of Immigration Litigation had not properly disciplined an attorney who had committed sexual misconduct.
In his report, the IG wrote that a senior, supervisory attorney in the Office of Immigration Litigation, Victor Lawrence, groped the breasts and buttocks of two female trial attorneys and made sexually charged comments to them at an office happy hour. Lawrence, whose name was redacted from the report but who was identified by people familiar with the incidents, had previously received a reprimand and diminution of title for sending emails of a sexual nature to co-workers.
After the second incident with the two women, Lawrence began a scheduled detail to another division "apparently with no notice to the component of the misconduct allegations," the inspector general wrote. After the groping allegations were investigated, Lawrence received a written reprimand for inappropriate touching, a further change in title and relief from supervisory duties.
The IG noted that Lawrence received no suspension or loss in pay or grade. The deciding official in the Civil Division said a suspension "would unnecessarily deprive the government of (his) litigating services," according to the report.
"I was terrified I was going to get in the elevator and he would be in there," said a woman who was involved in one of the groping incidents." The Post does not identify victims of sexual misconduct without their agreement.
Horowitz's report also concluded that this case "presented potential criminal assault violations, yet we found no evidence in the case file that a referral was made to the (Inspector General) or any other law enforcement entity."
Another senior attorney in the Office of Immigration Litigation admitted stalking a female attorney by hacking into her personal email account and conducting "a catfishing operation," by creating a "fictitious online profile to entice her," the inspector general found.
The attorney, Theodore Atkinson, who received a written reprimand and reduction in title, was restricted for one year from entering the building in which the attorney he had stalked worked and was moved to a different section in the Civil Division. But he received no suspension or loss in pay or grade.
The IG said this case also "raises potential criminal concerns, yet we found no evidence that a referral was made to (the Inspector General) or any other law enforcement entity," the report said. Atkinson's name was redacted from the report, but he was also identified by people familiar with the matter.
Atkinson was recently given a "Special Commendation Award from the Civil Division."
Neither Atkinson or Lawrence responded to requests for comment.
A third attorney, even after being counseled about inappropriate behavior toward female co-workers and interns, allegedly "peered" through high windows into the offices of two different women who had closed their doors while they were pumping breast milk, according to an IG report. The attorney caught peeping told his supervisor that it was "an honest mistake," an explanation the supervisor accepted, the IG report said. The matter was not fully investigated, the inspector general found, and the attorney was orally counseled. He is still working in the Office of Immigration Litigation. His alleged behavior became such an issue that some women at the Justice Department have taped wrapping paper over the windows outside their offices.
All three Civil Division attorneys received performance awards after their misconduct, the report said.
"I'm shocked and really disappointed," said a female attorney with knowledge of the incidents who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to a reporter. "They got free passes. They got awards. They got to continue with their careers. It sounds like nothing is going to be done."
Justice spokesman Prior said the Justice Department "does not discuss specific employee disciplinary actions or comment on personnel actions or matters that may impact personal privacy."
"That said, the Department was very disappointed with the issues that occurred in the previous administration and strives for a workplace free of harassment and other misconduct for all of our 115,000 employees," he said. "That is why the Civil Division has implemented additional safeguards and systems to ensure that all misconduct allegations are handled appropriately going forward."
Last week, a Justice Department official said a new Civil Division policy does not allow those under investigation for personnel matters or within a period of reprimand when misconduct is substantiated to be eligible for an award.
Another IG investigation found the No. 2 official in the U.S. Marshals Service in Massachusetts, Chief Deputy Marshal Jon Murray, had sex in his Boston office with "approximately nine" women. The IG's office redacted his name, but people with knowledge of the investigation confirmed Murray was the subject of the 13-page report. The IG concluded the official violated several policies, including those regarding conduct unbecoming of a Marshals Service employee and unprofessional or inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature.
During the investigation, Murray initially lied under oath to investigators and told some of the women not to disclose their sexual relationships with him, according to the report.
"I handled this horribly from the get-go," said Murray, according to the report. "And I just, I understand that there's serious ramifications for my actions that ... I chose to take."
Murray, who has been with the Marshals Service for more than 20 years, was transferred during the investigation two years ago to the agency's international training division in Rhode Island. He did not respond to requests for comment.
At least one of the high-profile sexual harassment cases in the Justice Department was brought against a female official. Amanda Marshall, then the top prosecutor in Oregon, had an "intimate personal relationship" with a subordinate for more than a year and then harassed him in texts and emails after the relationship ended, according to the investigative reports.
The victim told IG investigators that he reported Marshall's harassing text messages and emails because he wanted her to stop sending them. He said he "had difficulty sleeping and eating, was distracted and unfocused at work, and was concerned about losing his job."
Marshall, who initially lied to investigators about the relationship and tried to impede the probe, according an IG report, resigned in 2015 during the investigation, sought treatment and publicly apologized.
"The relationship I had ... was wrong," Marshall said in a statement after the IG report was released. "It was the biggest mistake of my life. By engaging in that affair, I failed the United States government, my fellow Oregonians and most of all, my family. I am deeply sorry and will spend the rest of my life trying to make amends."
The Oregon State Bar is now considering ethics charges against Marshall.
Her attorney, Allison Martin Rhodes, said in a statement that Marshall "is hopeful that the Bar, like the DOJ and OIG, will conclude that Ms. Marshall's conduct does not warrant any further sanction for conduct which, if it happened in a privately owned law firm or perhaps involving a male superior and a female subordinate, would likely have gone not only unsanctioned, but largely unnoticed."
The FBI has taken strong disciplinary action against some officials investigated for sexual harassment and misconduct by the IG.
In one case, an assistant special agent in charge was accused of asking female employees if they "wanted to see his balls," and asked one, "are you looking at my balls?" when she was in his office, which included a collection of baseballs. He also touched female employees in ways that made them feel uncomfortable and allegedly made sexual innuendos while talking to female employees, telling one employee she had a "nice hard body" and telling another that he and his wife called certain footwear like the woman was wearing "come f-– me boots," according to an investigative report.
The FBI official, whose name was redacted from the IG report and could not be learned, denied most of the allegations. But investigators concluded he engaged in multiple instances of inappropriate touching, sexual harassment and inappropriate comments of a sexual nature with several female FBI employees. He was demoted, transferred to a different division and subsequently fired by the FBI.
Another FBI official sexually harassed his female subordinates for about three years, according to the letter Horowitz wrote to Rosenstein in May. During that time, the official, whose name could not be learned, was counseled four times and even signed a pledge to refrain from the conduct.
"All to no effect," Horowitz wrote.
A bureau spokesman said the FBI was moving to fire the official, but he resigned before the disciplinary measure could be carried out.
Horowitz said he believes his office has received so many complaints from across the Justice Department in recent years because victims know there is a government office that takes their complaints seriously.
"Sexual harassment and misconduct is one of the very important areas we have to focus on and take seriously because of all the reasons the public is seeing now," he said. "People's attitudes have to change. Our interest is shining light on this kind of activity."
The Washington Post's Devlin Barrett and Julie Tate contributed to this report.