U.S. Forest Service chief resigns amid allegations of sexual misconduct

Tony Tooke was named chief of the U.S Forest Service last August. (Forest Service photo)

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke abruptly resigned late Wednesday amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

In a 5:16 p.m. (ET) email to agency employees, Tooke said the agency has hired an independent investigator to look into complaints against him – and that he welcomes the investigation.

“Many of you have seen the news reports which included the stories from women who told of their experiences with sexual harassment in the Forest Service,” said Tooke, a 40-year employee of the agency. “I admire their courage. Their stories are heartbreaking and reveal that we must do much more to achieve a safe, positive, and respectful work environment for all employees.”

Then he turned to the allegations against him.

“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.

“What I can control, however, are decisions I make today and the choice of a path for the future that is best for our employees, the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I must also think about what is best for my 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 termed his resignation a retirement, and said it was effective immediately. Tooke was named chief last August, replacing Tom Tidwell.

In the second installment of a two-part report on sexual harassment in the Forest Service, PBS News Hour revealed the agency’s investigation into Tooke’s behavior, which it labeled “sexual misconduct” and said involved relationships with subordinates before he became chief. No other details of the allegations have been made public.

The bulk of the PBS investigation detailed a long history of sexual harassment, intimidation and even sexual assault in the Forest Service, and a similarly long history of making those allegations “disappear” by transferring employees, ignoring reports or threatening retribution.

And despite agency claims of progress, PBS reporters found an environment that “remains hostile to female employees.”

In response to the PBS series, Dan Jiron, acting deputy undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, emailed agency employees expressing the need for change but without mentioning the chief.

“The stories the Forest Service employees shared during the PBS NewsHour piece are important to hear, difficult and heart-wrenching as they may be,” Jiron wrote. “Stories like these, which have come to light over the past few years, have underscored that there are elements of sexual harassment in the Forest Service that have existed and continue today.

“While we have taken significant actions over the past several years to address sexual harassment in the Forest Service, we acknowledge that we have more work to do. These are critical issues that the Forest Service must continue to take on to increase our efforts to protect our fellow employees so they know they can speak up and speak out, without any fear of retaliation or reprisal. We continue to consult with outside experts and focus internal resources to help us better support victims of harassment during investigations. Victims must know that there will be accountability for persons who engage in sexual harassment and reprisal. We are committed to our duty to create a workplace that is respectful, rewarding, and above all, a safe place for all employees. The Forest Service is committed to permanently changing our culture to create the workplace we all deserve.”

In his own letter to agency workers Wednesday, Tooke said: “Every Forest Service employee deserves a safe and respectful workplace free of harassment. Each employee deserves the very best leadership to bring about the cultural change necessary to rid the Forest Service of harassment, bullying, and retaliation.”

Later in the email, he added: “We are in a moment at the Forest Service when we have a tremendous opportunity to mold a bright and successful future in delivering our mission. To seize this moment, however, the right leadership must be in place to create an atmosphere in which employees can perform their very best work. Each employee deserves a leader who can maintain the proper moral authority to steer the Forest Service along this important and challenging course.”

Forest Service spokesmen said the agency would not be commenting on Tooke’s resignation.

However, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue released a statement accepting Tooke’s resignation:

“The Forest Service is filled with dedicated employees from across this nation who devote their lives to promoting healthy and productive forests for the benefit of taxpayers and our environment. In my experience, in order to effectively lead any organization, you must have the moral authority to inspire its members to work toward the goal of continuous improvement. Chief Tooke has determined that it is best for the Forest Service, its future, and its employees that he step aside. I thank him for his decades of service to this nation and to the conservation of its natural resources.”

Here is the full text of Tooke’s email to agency employees, announcing his resignation.

Subject: My Commitment to All Forest Service Employees, Our Mission, and the Best Possible Future

Every Forest Service employee deserves a safe and respectful workplace free of harassment. Each employee deserves the very best leadership to bring about the cultural change necessary to rid the Forest Service of harassment, bullying, and retaliation.

Many of you have seen the news reports which included the stories from women who told of their experiences with sexual harassment in the Forest Service. I admire their courage. Their stories are heartbreaking and reveal that we must do much more to achieve a safe, positive, and respectful work environment for all employees. Please know that Forest Service leadership is committed to investing in the changes and resources needed to improve and become much better.

Though we still have much to do, we have taken steps to improve policies, accountability, reporting systems, and training. A Senior Advisor has been designated to focus on work environment and an employee advisory group is being formed to help. However, we must address the drivers in our culture and change the systems that allow harassment, bullying and retribution to occur. Every employee must feel safe, valued, respected and free to speak up without fear of reprisal.

We are in a moment at the Forest Service when we have a tremendous opportunity to mold a bright and successful future in delivering our mission. To seize this moment, however, the right leadership must be in place to create an atmosphere in which employees can perform their very best work. Each employee deserves a leader who can maintain the proper moral authority to steer the Forest Service along this important and challenging course.

In some of these news reports, you may have seen references to my own behavior in the past. 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. What I can control, however, are decisions I make today and the choice of a path for the future that is best for our employees, the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I must also think about what is best for my 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.

I have loved the Forest Service, our employees, and our conservation and public service mission since joining at age 18. I am so grateful for the teaching and mentoring I’ve received from so many employees from field technicians to those at all levels, people from all walks of life. I have never worked anywhere else in my career and I am so proud to have served with all of you in sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands for present and future generations. I will always be grateful for the hundreds upon hundreds of employees that I’ve worked with directly as well as the thousands of others, past and present, who have been so dedicated and committed to caring for the land and serving people.

I thank Secretary Perdue for the opportunity to serve you as Chief and for the tremendous support he has shown for the Forest Service and the work we do: I also thank all of you for the support and confidence that you’ve shown in me in this role. I am proud of all of you, including our partners and volunteers, for all that you do every day to serve the American people and care for our natural resources and public lands.

I wish each of you the very best. My retirement will be effective immediately.