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Federal sexcapades: FEMA failed to properly investigate half of its sexual misconduct cases

A third of the disaster agency workers report they had experienced sexual harassment and misconduct, but most didn't report it because they believed it would go unaddressed, IG says.

Updated: October 10, 2021 - 10:48pm

The U.S. government's disaster recovery agency received more than 300 allegations of workplace sexual misconduct and harassment from 2012 to 2018 and failed to properly investigate more than half of them, according to an internal watchdog report that exposes the limits the #MeToo movement has met inside the federal bureaucracy.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's problems extend beyond proper handling of complaints, as a survey of its workforce exposed a potentially pervasive hostile work environment, according to a report issued this month by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general.

"One-third (255 of 765) of the employees who responded to our questionnaire indicated they had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, but they did not report it because they did not believe the allegations would be investigated," the inspector general reported.

"Unaddressed sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the workplace can have negative effects on employees, including decreased performance, low morale, and increased turnover," the report added.

The investigation documented that between 2012 and 2018 FEMA received 305 allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct in the workplace, including "sexual assault, unwelcome sexual advances, and inappropriate sexual comments," the report noted.

"The agency mustered a poor response to the flood of allegations," investigators said.

"We were unable to determine whether FEMA properly handled 153 of these allegations, because it could not provide complete investigative and disciplinary files," the report said. "For allegations that had complete files available, at times we were unable to determine whether FEMA conducted an investigation. Finally, we found FEMA did not document whether it reviewed some sexual harassment-related Equal Employment Opportunity complaints to determine whether potential employee misconduct occurred."

You can read the full report here:

The report offered numerous examples of half-hearted or ineffective efforts to investigate sexual misconduct.

In one case, the report recounted, a worker alleged multiple coworkers discussed having sex at work and "one male coworker told her that to keep her job, she had to have sex with him." The male coworker also allegedly threatened to "blackball" her. The coworker was removed from that office, but FEMA  still recommended a managerial inquiry to ensure the harassing behavior was not continuing elsewhere. As of March 2019, seven months after FEMA received the allegation, the agency's tracking data showed the case remained "open" with no investigative outcome.

In another case, a worker alleged a male colleague repeatedly shared inappropriate stories and comments of a sexual nature with female coworkers during work hours. More than 100 days after receiving this allegation, anti-harassment unit officials notified the complainant it was closing the case because she had been "unresponsive" to management attempts to contact her. FEMA didn't investigate, "despite having a detailed allegation" and the accused's name and office, the report said.

The DHS inspector general report follows several explosive reports earlier this year by the Justice Department's chief watchdog chronicling jaw-dropping cases of sexual harassment and misconduct inside the FBI ranging from illicit office romances to unwanted sexual touching by a male supervisor on a female subordinate. None of the offenders suffered any substantial penalty, as prosecutions were declined and offenders were allowed to retire, those reports show.

Homeland's watchdog recommended five immediate actions for FEMA to take to stem the tide of misconduct and inaction, ranging from more consistent training to a case management system and mandatory reporting of criminal sexual misconduct to authorities, all of which the agency accepted.

"We identified several issues with how FEMA handled employee allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct," the report noted. "During our evaluation, we determined that FEMA did not maintain full and complete investigative and disciplinary files, did not document whether it investigated some allegations, and did not appropriately investigate others. Such shortcomings may have fueled employee perceptions that FEMA did not address sexual harassment and sexual misconduct and was not supportive of employees reporting that type of behavior."