10 in Forest Service Face Suspension Over Harassment

Times Staff Writer

Conceding that management failures contributed to a sexual harassment scandal in the Los Padres National Forest, U.S. Forest Service officials recommended Tuesday that 10 supervisors be suspended from three to 30 days.

In addition, Forest Service officials said letters of warning have been sent to 13 temporary and two permanent Forest Service employees in connection with the discovery in September that two Forest Service crew carriers contained numerous photos of scantily clad women.

At the center of the controversy last fall was an elite team of firefighters -- a 20-member unit that remains part of a national group known as the Hotshots based at the Los Prietos Ranger Station. They travel the country fighting forest fires.

After two Hotshot crew carriers were found plastered with photos of nude and semi-nude women, formal sexual harassment charges were filed with the Forest Service, which has a long history of such complaints and is being monitored by a federal judge in Oakland as part of a class-action sexual harassment case.

Critics of the way sexual harassment issues have been treated by top management at the Los Padres Forest called last year for disbanding the local Hotshot chapter and replacing top management officials there, especially Los Padres Forest supervisor Jeanine Derby.

The actions announced Tuesday stopped short of such demands, but Forest Service officials said the suspensions are intended to make clear that the agency believes management was at fault in creating a climate where sexual harassment had become a major problem.

Lesa Donnelly, a prominent critic of the Hotshots' conduct, could not be reached for comment.

Jack Blackwell, the top Forest Service official in California, signed the letters of warning and will review any appeals of the 10 proposed suspensions. None of the employees disciplined were identified because of federal privacy laws, officials said. They have 15 days to appeal to Blackwell.

"While not pornographically explicit, many of the photos do show nude and semi-nude women in suggestive poses," Blackwell said. "The important point is that such photos are demeaning. They simply do not belong in government vehicles."

The Los Padres Forest, covering much of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties along with other large areas of the state, is one of 18 national forests in California.

When the Hotshots incident was reported, Blackwell responded by ordering emergency harassment education sessions for all 8,300 permanent and temporary Forest Service employees in the state.

Matt Mathes, chief spokesman for the Forest Service in California, said Blackwell believes the warnings and suspensions will send a strong message that supervisory personnel in the federal agency must do a better job of preventing sexual harassment.

"He is making it clear that he believes very strongly that sexual harassment is flat wrong and that this action reflects his thinking," Mathes said.

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