Lawmakers urge Zinke to crack down on sexual harassment at Interior

Lawmakers urge Zinke to crack down on sexual harassment at Interior
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Lawmakers on Thursday urged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to crack down on sexual assault in his agency and pressed him on the steps he is taking to address the issue.

Zinke was testifying before the House Committee on Natural Resources on the department's fiscal 2018 budget request, but faced tough questions from Democrats on protecting agency employees from harassment and assault.

“I am surprised personally that we have not had a hearing on this issue,” said Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.). “You have declared a zero tolerance policy with the promise of updating policies including retraining requirements and new reporting procedures, but I would suggest to you that that is not enough.”

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McEachin and Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) pushed Zinke to hold surveys on workplace satisfaction in the many offices making up the vast Interior Department.

Tsongas cited her work on the House Armed Services Committee addressing similar issues in the military.

“As we’ve learned so well in the armed services and all the work done it takes both a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach,” Tsongas said.

Zinke told lawmakers he was taking the issue seriously and was committed to working with Congress.

“I share your concerns about sexual harassment and intimidation in the workplace,” the secretary said. “I think our overall survey of job satisfaction reflects something is wrong.”

He told Tsongas that the department would hold a second round of surveys to get input from seasonal employees who did not weigh in before.

The issue of sexual harassment and assault at the agency gained national attention after an Interior Department report in February.

Investigators found instances of Tim K. Lynn, a senior executive in charge of Interior's Office of Law Enforcement, touching, hugging, texting, flirting and discussing inappropriate subjects with employees.

Lynn resigned in May.

Another report in 2016 found that female employees at Grand Canyon National Park had also accused male coworkers of harassment and assault.

Zinke said the issues were not contained to any particular office.

“Certainly [Bureau of Land Management] has had issues. It may be department-wide, that’s a fair assessment,” he told lawmakers. 

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) questioned Democrats' suggestion that the issue had not received oversight.

"Last year the [Oversight and Government Reform] Committee had four hearings on sexual harassment, two in the National Parks Service, one in the Forest Service and one in the EPA,” he said.

“I don’t mind having another hearing about that, but I thought it was interesting that [McEachin] would accuse you of not doing something that happened in the previous administration,” Labrador told Zinke.