The DOJ's Own Investigator Says It's Awful At Handling Sexual Harassment Complaints

Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Sexual harassment complaints have reached the highest reaches of government, and now it seems even the public officials charged with enforcing the nation's laws — like those that guarantee a workplace free of sexual harassment — are being called out. A new report shows the Justice Department has "systemic" issues of sexual harassment, with employees receiving small punishments and then going on to receive raises and promotions.

An inspector general tasked with exploring complaints at the DOJ wrote that Justice Department supervisors had regularly mishandled accusations, The Washington Post reported Tuesday after analyzing investigative reports that were attained under the Freedom of Information Act. The number of cases has grown in recent years, and accusations have been leveled at senior Justice Department officials across the country. The author of the report, Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, wrote that the issue needs "high level action."

Horowitz, in an interview, told The Post that the people involved in the complaints encompass many of the upper echelon posts in the DOJ. "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," Horowitz said.

A memo outlining that sexual harassment was a systemic problem at the department was sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, back on May 31. The inspector general wrote that action needed to be taken:

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. 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.

"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. Now, contacted by The Post, the DOJ says that they have a "working group" organized to respond to the reports and develop an action plan.

Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior also acknowledged an August letter that was written by 17 Justice Department employees who explained that they had personally experienced or witnessed sexual harassment. The letter was sent through the DOJ Gender Equality Network, which has hundreds of members throughout the organization.

The actual reports included details on several instances of accusations and the follow-up that the department took. In all the cases, the higher-up officials were accused of sexual misconduct, from groping breasts to stalking or peeping over the past years. In no case were their punishments adequate, the report found. They were given written reprimands, changes in titles, and perhaps a revocation of their supervisory duties.

But none were suspended or had their pay docked in any way, be it temporary or through a permanent loss to their pay grade.

This response of the DOJ to allegations is perhaps the most troubling detail for the inspector general. “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 told The Post.

The Post interviewed one woman with knowledge of the cases at the DOJ who told the paper on condition of anonymity that she was "shocked and really disappointed.”

“They got free passes," she continued. "They got awards. They got to continue with their careers. It sounds like nothing is going to be done.”

Prior told The Post that the DOJ "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 also claimed that "additional safeguards and systems" had been implemented to ensure this does not happen again.