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Hill Air Force Base official removed for undermining sexual harassment claims

Special counsel calls out ‘egregious conduct’ by head of equal opportunity office.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) This Sept. 8, 2017, file photo shows a line of F-16 airplanes at Hill Air Force Base. The director of Hill's Equal Opportunity Office has been removed for 'egregious' conduct in mishandling and stifling sexual harassment claims at one of Utah's largest employers.

The director of Hill Air Force Base’s Equal Opportunity Office has been removed for discouraging sexual harassment complaints, including telling victims inappropriately that their claims — which were later proven — “wouldn’t carry any weight” and “wouldn’t go anywhere.”

The director, who was not specifically named nor identified by gender in documents released by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, was reassigned to another office with no involvement or influence over EEO filings and was issued a “letter of counseling.”

The special counsel, meanwhile, wrote that he is disappointed that an Air Force investigation into the matter stopped short of finding the director directly culpable of wrongdoing, and instead viewed actions as mistakes resulting from misunderstanding or negligence.

“I am disappointed that the USAF’s report — despite acknowledging a plethora of legal violations and other egregious conduct — stops short of acknowledging the director’s culpability … often attributing [his/her] conduct to ‘negligence’ and misunderstanding, despite [his/her] approximately 21 years of EEO experience,” wrote Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner.

“Nevertheless, given USAF’s commitments to corrective action based on this report,” he added, “I have determined that the report contains the information required by statute and that its findings appear reasonable.”

Also, he wrote that the Air Force has initiated a separate inquiry into potential wrongdoing by two attorneys at Hill’s Civil Law Division after the current probe raised questions about their “competence and candor,” and showed mistakes that made at least one whistleblower’s case more difficult.

Complaints from several whistleblowers at Hill about the handling of their sexual harassment and discrimination cases led to an investigation of the U.S. Air Force Material Command’s Office of Inspector General.

It found the EEO director “actively discouraged employees from filing EEO complaints,” telling one whistleblower that complaints against her or his supervisor “wouldn’t carry weight” and “wouldn’t go anywhere.” However, the complaints were later substantiated.

Also, it found that the director “illegally modified and rejected EEO complaints and allegations,” including “erroneously eliminating language critical to the validity and timeliness” of complaints.

The probe also found that the director gave employees “false and misleading information about the EEO process, including illegally denying a whistleblower the ability to remain anonymous at the informal stage of the EEO process and telling a filer that [he/she] was not entitled to file a claim when the filer was, in fact, entitled to do so.”

The Air Force report also said the director failed to identify a conflict of interest during an EEO mediation when a senior official accused of wrongdoing served as the sole settlement authority for the agency.

“I commend the whistleblowers for coming forward to identify these violations of law, gross mismanagement and abuses of authority,” Special Counsel Kerner wrote.

Some comments released in documents by the whistleblowers, who were not named, included one advising future whistleblowers to “stay strong, persevere, and hold true to your beliefs and integrity” and “[n]ever allow anyone to threaten or discourage you from doing what is right, honest, and fair.”

Besides removing the director at Hill, other corrective action agreed to by the Air Force includes revising annual EEO training to reflect “a number of lessons learned from the incidents at Hill,” and issuing new EEO policies.

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