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Report: More than 1,500 Interior Department employees disciplined for harassment, misconduct

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signs a Public Lands Order at a ceremony in Emigrant, MT on October 08, 2018. The Public Lands Order withdraws 30,000 acres of public land from hard rock mining surrounding two proposed gold mines in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park for 20 years. The gold mining is opposed by local businesses in Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River just north of Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by William Campbell-Corbis via Getty Images)

More than 1,500 federal Interior Department employees were fired, suspended or reprimanded for harassment or misconduct in 2017 and 2018.

Why did this happen?

The disciplinary actions were part of a year-long effort toward creating more accountability, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt told employees in a staff email obtained by The Hill.

The email, titled “A Situational Update,” told staff that new plans are being developed to curb inappropriate behavior and also expand an ethics program within the agency, according to the report.

“From day one, [Interior] Secretary [Ryan] Zinke and I have been committed to leaving the Department in better shape than we found it; this includes addressing employee misconduct and harassment and improving our ethics program,” the email reportedly stated.

The department released in April an extensive policy on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassing Conduct.

What’s next?

Staff members are now being urged to come forward with any concerns.

The email stated: “Despite these efforts, we can only take action when we are aware of misconduct or unethical behavior. For this to happen, employees have to be willing to come forward. I want you to know that your leadership is listening, and we are committed to holding individuals accountable when they have failed in their duties and obligations.”

Zinke partly blamed the Obama administration for failing to address harassment concerns within the Interior Department, which includes the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In December, the Interior Department did a survey that found 35 percent of its workers were either harassed or discriminated against at work in prior 12 months, the report states. Additionally, about 40 percent of the time, people who reported the harassment were encouraged to drop the matter, according to the report.

The Interior Department in October of last year announced a plan to fight “rampant harassment within the National Park Service.” Nearly 40 percent of Park Service employees reported some form of harassment over the previous 12 months, according to the report.

“All employees have the right to work in an environment that is safe and harassment-free. I've removed a number of people who were abusive or acted improperly that other administrations were too afraid to or just turned a blind eye to. Under my leadership we’re going to hold people accountable,” Zinke said in a statement.

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