Government has a sex problem

Why would a woman stand as a lone picketer, in professional business attire, outside Transportation Security Administration headquarters offices on a hot day, with a sign claiming “no justice”?

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Alyssa Bermudez

Why would 100,000 people sign a petition calling on the White House to remove National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis for not acting on employee misconduct? I mean, he just published a book on the beauties of the nation’s magnificent park system.

The answer is simple: Sex.

More accurately, sexual harassment or other misbehavior involving sex.

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In the federal government these days, instances of sexual misbehavior are like dandelions. You spot one, then suddenly you see them all over the lawn.

The woman in the picture is Alyssa Bermudez, an Army veteran who served in Iraq. She was a geospatial intelligence specialist. Her story is complicated, but here’s the gist of it. At the TSA, where she was an administrative support person in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA), she claimed repeated sexual harassment by a fellow employee.  In her complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Bermudez said she found herself moved to a different office doing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, put on administrative leave, then detailed to the Office of Security Operations. From there, she was fired five days before her year-long probationary period came to an end, on April 30, 2015. Yet a performance evaluation dated Sept. 30, 2014 shows her receiving a 4.8 out of 5.0, which qualifies as having “achieved excellence.” The termination letter, from John Beattie, the executive director of her home office OIA, described a person who could barely get along with anyone.

She has also filed an Office of Special Counsel complaint against then-OIS Deputy Assistant Administrator Eric Sarandrea for the dismissal.

Mark Livingston was a senior executive service member in OIA. The deputy assistant administrator as a matter of fact. One day in his office, he and Bermudez both alleged, the deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Security Operations — Joseph Salvator — stopped by and during the meeting ogled Bermudez, attempting to look down her shirt. Salvator is alleged to have asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

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Livingston said when Bermudez (at the time Alyssa Jackson) left the office, he and Salvator had a conversation in which Salvator said that if Bermudez complained, it would be her word against theirs. Livingston said he refused to go along and was threatened by Salvator not to get on his, Salvator’s, s— list.

Soon after, a “morale survey” produced by Salvator — who had by then moved to TSA’s Office of Investigations — showed Livingston to be an ineffective leader, and he was demoted from SES back to GS-15 and transferred to the Office of the Chief Risk Officer. That’s where he works to this day.  Salvator then moved over to OIG to take Livingston’s place. Given his more than 30 years in federal intelligence at various agencies, Livingston believes he was squeezed out by a good-old-boy culture. He’s filed an EEO complaint surrounding the survey and his demotion.

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These events have been reported in writing to House and Senate investigators, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, and to the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general office. Bermudez and Livington told me the same story. I called Salvator three times to get his view but he has not returned the calls. A TSA public affairs person emailed me that the agency declines to comment on the episode.

I go into some detail on this incident to at least partially reconstruct for you the events that would drive someone to stand and picket all alone like that. Bermudez doesn’t sound like a nut, nor does her D.C. lawyer with whom I also spoke. Tamara Miller of The Federal Practice Group told me, “I believe TSA has a sexual harassment problem with senior executives.”

Miller said Salvator has denied the allegations, and that TSA did not sustain any of the claims Bermudez made regarding him or the original alleged harasser, an acting team leader named in documents as Christopher Coffey. Miller said TSA’s Office of Investigations has not made available documents related to these and other allegations, but that she intends to get them through her suit on behalf of Bermudez against DHS.

The story is actually longer and more convoluted, with people rotating through jobs, with allegations of people receiving big raises because of who they were sleeping with, of people being demoted but getting nearly $10,000 in bonuses at the same time, and with other senior executives besides the recently departed Security Operations head Kelly Hoggan getting bonuses in small increments so as to go unnoticed. It all makes TSA headquarters sound like a circus.

Andrew Becker has been writing a series of detailed reports on TSA at  RevealNews. This account is particularly eyebrow-raising.

A Government Accountability Office report from back in 2013 carried the mild headline, “TSA could strengthen monitoring of allegations of employee misconduct.” Indeed. At the time, GAO looked at nearly 10,000 allegations. Nearly 10 percent involved “inappropriate comments or conduct or comments” including sexual misconduct.

To be sure, we live in a hypersensitive age where people often leap to find actionable offense in the most trivial perceived thing. Most organizations’ response is driven more by legal counsel than in anything resembling common sense. Nevertheless, sexual harassment is a real and all-too-frequent occurrence.

That’s TSA. But this is happening across the government. Just from the recent news:

  • Jonathan Jarvis, head of the Park Service, has not been accused of sexual harassment. He’s been implicated by employees and now by members of the House Oversight and Government Reform  committee for letting it go on in his agency, with reports coming from certain park locations like gamma rays from a sunspot. That Jarvis hasn’t pinched off this sort of behavior and fired the people doing it has become the source of his tension with Congress.
  • Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was aghast last year at reports of frat house-like behavior at the Drug Enforcement Administration. In a hearing the other day, he complained about the Justice Department not having produced a report last year “about DEA agents who attended sex parties with prostitutes funded by the local drug cartels.  Worse yet, these parties occurred at their government-leased quarters, over a period of several years.”  Grassley cited very light punishments of suspensions ranging from 2 to 10 days’ suspension. In testimony last week, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz reported that DEA management, to its credit, has made strides in implementing recommendations from the IG regarding misconduct. These include not classifying sexual misconduct — which has greater penalties — under a more general category.
  • Grassley has also been after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for what he said are “multiple claims of sexual harassment, bullying, gender discrimination and witness intimidation” by senior officials.”

Many other examples of such reports are out there — Air Force Academy, Air Marshals Service, the list goes on. The numbers aren’t big, but the instances are found in a lot of places.

What’s needed is not necessarily draconian punishment so much as far faster investigation and remedying of complaints and the situations that give rise to them. And more uniform and clear policies of where people go with initial complaints. Across government these reports go variously to inspectors general, some specific agency adjudication office, or directly to the EEOC.