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.”
Elisa Lopez-Crowder alleges that she was doing a fire drill in June 2010 when her supervisor, Brian Levine, walked up behind her and pushed her to the ground and held her down with his foot before another firefighter broke it up. She reported the incident on July 29, 2010. The regional office was never contacted and the local human resources department did its own investigation. The criminal division wasn’t contacted and Lopez-Crowder continued to work with Levine.
When Donnelly contacted Vilsack’s office, Vilsack’s office took control of the investigation, Donnelly and Lopez-Crowder told the Daily Caller.
On October 4, 2011, in a meeting in his office, Secretary Vilsack assured a contingent which included Wagoner, Crowder-Lopez, and Donnelly that Levine would be terminated for alleged assault. Levine was terminated months later.
Vilsack did not return TheDC’s request for comment.
Villalvazo, who did not reply to TheDC’s request for comment, was eventually transferred to the Pacific Southwest Regional Office in Vallejo, California in another management role. Donnelly insists that the move was a lateral transfer. Stanton Florea, a media contact for the Pacific Southwest Regional Office of the Forestry Service, also did not respond to an email for comment.
Donnelly told TheDC that the suit will also spotlight Kevin Elliott, the forest supervisor for the Sequoia National Forest in California: “Kevin Elliott has had numerous complaints by female firefighters of assault, sexual harassment, gender harassment, workplace violence, guns in the workplace and drugs in the workplace. He has not properly dealt with these problems and retaliates against the women who report them by false allegations of misconduct/discipline, poor performance ratings, denial of training, verbal abuse, and termination such as with [Alicia] Dabney.”
Elliott did not return a request for comment.
After Dabney came forward and claimed that she was the target of a harassment campaign starting in 2011, Elliott fired her from her job as a firefighter at the Sequoia National Forest. Dabney had complained that a photo was sent around her work place which read “Alicia Dabney is a whore” and that a lewd voicemail was left for her via a colleague’s phone.
LISTEN TO THE VOICEMAIL (NSFW):
Dabney also alleged her supervisor, Tyler Castle — who is still employed by the USDA Forest Service — attempted to rape her before she was able to talk him down in 2012.
Dabney will be one of the lead agents in the new suit.
Jonel Wagoner, another lead agent, has worked with the Forest Service since 1980 and said she’s been on the receiving end of repeated discrimination. She alleges that she’s been constantly subjected to abusive language, forced to take a demotion four times in order to get away from a bad situation, and hasn’t received a promotion since the early 1990s.
She works on the Sequoia National Forest, where Elliott is two levels above her. Wagoner said that at their first meeting, Elliott told her he considered her reputation for activism to be a bad thing.
Wagoner told TheDC that she doesn’t consider herself an activist, but a whistle blower.
Wagoner told TheDC that Elliott retaliated against her after she was included in the 2011 class action suit. He allegedly refused to deal with any of the union business she brought him as the union representative, falsely accused her of missing work, and failed to investigate Wagoner’s allegations that crew members were smoking marijuana on the job.
“He hates me so bad that he retaliates against the people I advocate on behalf of,” Wagoner said.
Wagoner said she helped Alicia Dabney first bring her complaints forward. Dabney was subsequently terminated in 2012. Wagoner also said a pregnant firefighter who she attempted to help get work accommodation during her pregnancy had that accommodation denied.
The USDA and the House and Senate Agriculture Committees did not return a series of emails and phone calls for comment by TheDC. Larry Chambers, a public affairs employee with the Forest Service, did not return multiple requests for comment.
In a 2012 story by Federal News Radio on the Vercruysse suit, the USDA issued this statement:
“We are aware of the employees’ concerns and take them very seriously, as we do all allegations of misconduct. The allegations have already been or are being fully and fairly investigated. It is the policy of the USDA and the Forest Service to provide a workplace that is free of harassment.”
Donnelly, along with the three firefighters interviewed by TheDC for this report — Alicia Dabney, Elisa Lopez-Crowder, and Jonel Wagoner — all said that although the USDA, Tom Vilsack, and even President Obama all occasionally issue statements condemning sexual assault and harassment, the Obama administration has been slow to respond to calls for help from female firefighters in California’s U.S. Forest Service.