Great Falls Tribune: Daines calls for hearing after forest chief sexual harassment allegations

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said Thursday he will use every means possible “to hold all bad actors” accountable in response to the resignation Wednesday of U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke amid sexual harassment allegations in the agency.

The Montana Republican said he planned to ask for a Senate hearing on combatting sexual harassment in the U.S. Forest Service.

Tooke’s departure comes less than a week after PBS NewsHour reported the chief was under investigation following relationships with subordinates before he became chief, the Associated Press reported.

A recent investigation aired on the PBS NewsHour found at least two incidents of sexual harassment in Montana within the U.S. Forest Service, Daines said.

“I am distraught and angered that this happened in Montanans’ own backyard. That’s why I am planning a Senate hearing,” Daines said. “Strong leaders are needed to change the culture of the organization and I believe Mr. Tooke’s resignation was the right decision.”

Daines is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry, and Natural Resources; a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies; the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Those committees have had jurisdiction over land management agencies and harassment in the federal workforce, he said.

“I plan to use every tool to ensure all bad actors are held accountable,” Daines said.
On March 1, during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Daines said he urged the Office of Personnel Management to take steps to expedite the termination process for federal employees who have engaged in harassment, including sexual harassment.

Tooke stepped down Wednesday after an investigation was launched into sexual misconduct allegations against him, the Associated Press said.

A Forest Service spokesman on Thursday confirmed Tooke’s sudden retirement just seven months after he took over an agency that has been rocked over the past two years by reports of rampant sexual harassment, according to AP.

In a Wednesday night email to Forest Service employees, Tooke said he had cooperated with the investigation. He did not directly deny the allegations but said he “cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported.”

The Forest Service oversees 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 43 states and Puerto Rico.

Tooke sent an email to all Forest Service employees Wednesday afternoon. In it, he referenced news reports about women who told of being sexually harassed.

“In some of these news reports, you may have seen references to my own behavior in the past,” Tooke wrote. “This naturally raised questions about my record and prompted an investigation, which I requested and fully support, and with which I have cooperated. I have been forthright during the review, but I cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported in the news media.”

He said he must think about what is best for his family.

“Therefore, I have decided that what is needed right now is for me to step down as Forest Service Chief and make way for a new leader that can ensure future success for all employees and the agency,” Tooke said.

Before he was sworn in as the Forest Service chief, Tooke was most recently regional forester for the agency’s Southern Region. 

Missoula-based Region 1, the Northern Region, headed by Regional Forester Leanne Marten, has 2,500 employees and encompasses 25 million acres.

It is made up of 12 national forests in northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and Montana including Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest based in Great Falls and Helena. Ten of the forests are located in Montana. 

Region 1 Spokesman David Smith said employees were notified about Tooke’s resignation Wednesday afternoon.

“Harassment in any form — and this is not about the chief, it’s about our agency and our employees — is something none of us can be OK with,” Smith said. “We have been working very hard to create an environment where that doesn’t exist and there’s a lot more work to be done.”