A group of female firefighters in California is preparing to sue the Obama administration for failing to curb — and even covering up — allegedly rampant sexual abuse and harassment within the U.S. Forest Service.
Lesa Donnelly — vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees — told The Daily Caller that she has repeatedly contacted the Obama administration to report that the California region of the Forest Service routinely covers up sexual assaults, especially against female firefighters.
Donnelly will be filing a class action lawsuit in front of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March, alleging that the Forest Service has retaliated against at least 25 women who complained of sexual abuses and harassment. The women are passed over for promotions and verbally demeaned, she alleges.
This won’t be the first time Donnelly has led a class action lawsuit against the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the mid-1990s, she led two similar lawsuits when she was employed by the Forest Service, claiming that she was harassed by four male employees. Those two lawsuits — Donnelly v. Glickman and Donnelly v. Veneman — were settled with the Justice Department and USDA, which oversees the Forest Service.
The upcoming lawsuit will, in part, mirror another lawsuit filed in 2011 filed by Elaine Vercruysse, a logging systems planner with the Plumas National Forest of the U.S. Forest Service. In that lawsuit, also filed with the EEOC, Vercruysse led a group of twelve women who alleged widespread sexual and physical assaults in the California region — Region 5 — of the Forest Service. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed on a technicality, when a judge ruled the term “women” too broad and threw the case out.
Drawing from that experience, Donnelly said that she will now be filing specifically on behalf of female firefighters from Region 5. While some of the complaints are the same as those alleged in the Vercruysse suit, the new suit includes several new charges as well, according to details shared exclusively with TheDC.
Donnelly told TheDC that she has been in contact with the office of Valerie Jarrett — a top aide to President Obama — through Jarrett’s aide, Michael Blake, since 2011. After Donnelly contacted Jarrett’s office in May 2011 regarding numerous harassment complaints, Blake told Donnelly in an email that Joe Leonard, the USDA’s assistant secretary for civil rights, would investigate the problem personally.
In June 2011, Robin Heard, USDA deputy assistant secretary for administration, told Donnelly that Heard would be handling civil rights issues in the Forest Service personally.
U.S. Forest Service Director Tom Tidwell sent an email on July 1, 2011, to all Forest Service employees saying that the Forest Service would be “assisted” by the USDA.
“I want to advise all our employees of an important change in how we process EEO complaints that I am confident will set us on a path to a better, healthier workplace. On June 13, we entered into a partnership with USDA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration, Robin Heard to better process a series of EEO complaints within the Forest Service that, frankly, we have not handled well.”
Emails sent by the Daily Caller to Leonard, Heard and Tidwell were left unreturned.
Though Jarrett’s office has been briefed periodically on the status of certain cases, they have not intervened since, Donnelly said.
“From time to time, I’ll send an email to Jarrett saying ‘we need your help,’” said Donnelly, but Jarrett has never responded to any of the email pleas. Jarrett and Blake did not return TheDC’s requests for comment.
According to the forthcoming suit, a man named Ramiro Villalvazo was the forest supervisor at the Eldorado National Forest in California. During his tenure, the suit alleges, two women were assaulted — one physical and one sexually — by two different men.
According to the lawsuit, Villalvazo attempted to bury reports in one case and performed an improper investigation — leading to an intervention by Secretary Vilsack — in the other case.
The two women involved — Elisa Lopez-Crowder and Denice Rice — spoke with TheDC and recounted the alleged assaults.
Rice alleges that starting in 2009, a new male supervisor, Mike Beckett, began to stalk her at work, touch her inappropriately, constantly sext her on a government cell phone, and routinely made unwanted advances at her. She didn’t file a formal complaint until 2011.
Rice contends that not only did Villalvazo look the other way while the assaults and harassment occurred, but for the first six months following her report, he buried the investigation. Only after Rice reached out to Donnelly did the investigation move forward, she said.
Beckett retired from the USDA on March 29, 2012. According to an affidavit from Eldorado National Forest Supervisor Kathy Hardy, the retirement occurred before Beckett’s investigation was complete.
“On February 28, 2012 I received a copy of the administrative inquiry report,” Hardy wrote. “I did not take time to read the report (it was about 4-5 inches thick), but immediately turned it over to Mr. Rick Hopson, Amador District Ranger, so he could prepare the proposed action. He completed his Proposed Removal on March 15, and submitted it for review by the RO and Department. The proposal was never delivered to Mr. Beckett because Mr. Beckett retired from the FS on March 29, 2012 before the proposal was approved.”