The last few months have seen the beginnings of a long-overdue national conversation on how we respond to sexual harassment. But it turns out that almost four months before Harvey Weinstein’s head rolled, the Department of Justice got a very loud warning that it had a serious problem with sexual misconduct in its own ranks.
On May 31, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote a strongly-worded memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein detailing “potential systemic issues” with how the department handles sexual misconduct. Although the department has a long-standing “zero tolerance” policy for harassment, supervisors have frequently mishandled complaints, and some people have received performance awards or bonuses despite being under investigation.
Horowitz told Rosenstein that something needs to be done, and now.
“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.”
The Civil Division, which represents the United States in civil cases, came under particular scrutiny–enough that Horowitz felt the need to issue a separate report. At least two Civil Division attorneys were investigated for harassing behavior that potentially crossed the line into criminal misconduct. One of them, Victor Lawrence, sent sexually charged emails to co-workers and later groped female colleagues at a happy hour. Another, Theodore Atkinson, hacked a female attorney’s email and created a bogus social media profile to stalk her. However, the attorneys were neither suspended nor docked pay, and even received performance awards.
Horowitz’ report generated little attention at the time, though CBS News reported on it. Watch here.
However, the true depth of the problem only became clear when The Washington Post made a Freedom of Information Act request for more details on the IG investigations. One of the more lurid cases involved a U. S. Attorney who harassed one of his assistant federal prosecutors via text and email after breaking off a sexual relationship with her. In another case, a chief deputy U. S. marshal had sex with “approximately” nine women in his office.
There has been a marked increase in the number of complaints over the past five years. According to Horowitz, the cases run the gamut.
“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.”
Ultimately, Rosenstein will decide on any needed discipline. But he already got a nudge from a group of Justice Department staffers, who wrote him in August to tell him about their experiences of harassment at the department.
Rosenstein has convened a working group to look into the issues, and plans to give recommendations to Horowitz. Unlike most Trump appointees, there’s little reason to doubt that Rosenstein is taking this seriously. While he is known to be a Republican, he served as U. S. Attorney in Maryland under Bush 43 and Obama, and is well respected on both sides of the aisle. He also has a very deep knowledge of the DOJ’s culture, having worked there for more than a quarter-century under five presidents. And of course, he is the man who picked Robert Mueller to get to the bottom of the Russian attempt to hack the election.
From the looks of it, at least one component of the Trump Administration is willing to do something about sexual harassment.
(featured image courtesy Coolcaesar, available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license)