Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The FBI tackles sexual misconduct in its ranks

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Faced with a #MeToo reckoning, the FBI says it is taking sexual harassment seriously in its ranks, launching a 24/7 hotline, doing more to help prosecutors and taking a tougher stand against officers who have committed misconduct.

The changes follow last year’s Associated Press reports that found a series of sexual assault and harassment allegations against senior officials who were allowed to quietly avoid discipline and withdraw or transfer even after the allegations were substantiated.

FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate told the AP that the office is sending its strongest message that employees who are tempted to engage in sexual misconduct should be scared because if they do, “we’re going for them.” .

“That is a solid approach, a strong change and we mean it. And it comes from above, ”said Abbate. “People who engage in this type of misconduct do not belong to the FBI and certainly should not have the supervision of others. Period. “

Among the changes that FBI officials detailed to the AP in a series of recent interviews was a 24-hour hotline that provides a centralized mechanism for reporting abuse, although they did not say how many calls it has received. They also called in a task force of senior executives to review policies and procedures on harassment and victim support, and faster action to investigate allegations and fire or at least demote employees who have engaged in misconduct. to make sure they don’t have a path to management.

To address chronic concerns that the FBI makes it difficult and intimidating for victims to come forward, the office is spreading the word more widely in internal and online communications about where victimized employees can report allegations. And the FBI’s Victim Services Division, which until recently had focused on helping federal crime victims outside of the office, has been extending the same level of support to employees who are victims of internal misconduct.

Advocates for the fight against sexual abuse received the office’s changes with skepticism, calling them long overdue, coming years after the advent of the #MeToo movement, and unlikely to affect lasting change.

“Everyone has been through this, including the military, and the bureau has managed to skid,” said Jane Turner, a former FBI agent who in 1983 became the first woman appointed director of a resident FBI agency.

“Until the FBI indicts these people and puts them in jail, or at least outside of the FBI, and the message is spread that this can’t be done, it won’t stop,” said Turner, who now works with the National Complaints center. “A total cultural change is going to be necessary.”

FBI officials insist the sexual misconduct allegations represent a limited picture of the roughly 35,000-strong workforce. But the cases that have been identified, by the AP and also by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog, have exposed gaps in accountability and shockingly bad behavior.

An AP investigation last year found that several senior FBI officials have avoided discipline, quietly transferring or retiring with full benefits, even after sexual misconduct allegations against them were substantiated.

That includes James Hendricks, the former top agent in Albany, New York, who allegedly had sexually harassed eight subordinate women, even asking one to have sex in a conference room. An assistant principal also withdrew after being accused of drunkenly groping a colleague on a staircase.

Those incidents add to a class action lawsuit alleging systemic sexual harassment at the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia.

And just last month, the Office of the Inspector General released a new report to the AP alleging that an assistant special agent in charge groped a colleague at an after-work event – a sexual assault captured on surveillance video. .

“It was gross and creepy, I was touching the same parts of me repeatedly, so not by accident,” the woman sent to a friend after groping. “We endured a lot so as not to make the boat wobble.”

The heavily redacted report does not identify the agent, but says investigators confirmed allegations that he “had unwanted physical sexual contact with three FBI employees.” The report says an unspecified agency refused to prosecute the official; It is unclear if the FBI sanctioned him.

Sexual misconduct has also drawn the attention of Congress and advocacy groups, who called for new whistleblower protections for FBI rank-and-file employees and for an outside entity to review the office’s disciplinary cases.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said during a congressional hearing in April that this is an issue that “makes my blood boil.”

“There is nothing more important than our people and how we treat each other,” Wray said. “I have tried to make it very clear that we are going to have zero tolerance for that type of activity at any level within the organization.”

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Mustian reported from New York.

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