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Contempt Order Denied in Sex Harassment Case

Times Staff Writers

U.S. Forest Service workers who claim the agency is not living up to the terms of a settlement in a sexual harassment case failed Friday to win a contempt order.

Although a federal judge in Oakland turned down the contempt motion filed by plaintiffs against the U.S. secretary of Agriculture, the government was ordered to return to court in December to report on its progress in meeting the settlement provisions.

“We are really pleased the judge rejected the motion,” said Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins, who attended the hearing. She added that officials “already have a plan on the progress we’re going to make on those issues” of concern to the judge.

Filed in 1995, the statewide class-action suit alleged that women working in the Forest Service in California were subjected to widespread verbal and physical harassment.

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The settlement, approved in 2001, calls for the Forest Service to take a number of steps dealing with personnel training as well as the handling and investigation of harassment complaints.

Plaintiffs maintain the Forest Service has failed to do much of what it agreed to and that female workers have been subjected to continuing harassment and reprisal.

“There’s a culture of reprisal against employees in general, particularly if a woman makes a complaint of sexual harassment,” said Lesa Donnelly, a former Forest Service worker and lead plaintiff in the suit.

At the Oakland hearing, Donnelly said U.S. District Judge Lowell Jensen expressed dissatisfaction with the way the Forest Service was dealing with reprisal claims and with its efforts to create a database to track harassment complaints. Also, Jensen extended settlement oversight, originally set to end in January 2005, to January 2006.

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“We have a year’s more time to make sure women are treated as they should be,” plaintiffs’ attorney Lisa Duarte said.

Earlier in the week the Forest Service announced that an independent investigator hired by the agency to study complaints of sexual harassment against female employees in Los Padres National Forest had concluded there was “no basis for the allegations that there is a pattern of continuing sexual harassment against women” there.

The Los Padres investigation followed an official complaint last September that some members of a special crew of forest firefighters stationed at the Los Prietos Ranger Station near Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County had plastered numerous photos of scantily clad women inside two crew carriers.

The firefighters involved in that incident were members of one of the Forest Service’s elite groups of Hotshots, specially trained firefighters who routinely travel the country wherever needed during the worst fires. Critics contended that Forest Service management had lost control of the Hotshots group and failed to support harassment claims from female employees.

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About two weeks after the Sept. 17 complaint against the Hotshots at Los Prietos, California’s top Forest Service official, Jack A. Blackwell, called the alleged behavior intolerable and ordered immediate one-hour sensitivity training sessions for all 8,300 permanent and temporary employees at the 18 national forests in California.

At that point Blackwell ordered a separate probe of conditions at Los Prietos. Meanwhile, Donnelly, who had been one of the monitors appointed in the class-action case, singled out the Los Prietos Hotshots as an unprofessional group that should be disbanded for “bringing shame” on the entire Forest Service.

In January, the Forest Service conceded that management failures had contributed to the sexual harassment incident in Los Padres. Officials announced that 10 supervisors would be suspended from three to 30 days. Also, warning letters were sent to 13 temporary and two permanent employees. Allowing time for appeals, Blackwell ended up changing only one of the suspensions, reducing one of three 30-day suspensions to 10 days.

The follow-up investigation of the Los Padres situation was conducted from July 3 to 15, said regional Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.

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Mathes said this week that officials were “especially pleased” that the fact-finder found no continuing pattern of sexual harassment.

The investigator, who was not identified by the Forest Service, also found there was no hostile work environment in Los Padres resulting from harassment of women. The fact-finder, however, did recommend better training in the prevention of sexual harassment.

Mathes said the Forest Service will follow up the recommendations in a number of ways, including assigning more women together in work details and encouraging open communications between new female employees and agency managers.

Donnelly, who consistently has argued the Forest Service is not serious about improving conditions for women, dismissed the latest report as an action aimed more at influencing the judge than fixing any problems.

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