Months before U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke abruptly resigned, his superiors at the Agriculture Department were made aware of the scandal that brought an end to Tooke’s 30-year career.
As early as September, the office of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) informed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office of a letter from a Forest Service retiree who wrote that Tooke wasn’t deserving of the post he was appointed to by Perdue the month before.
Isakson’s office confirmed its receipt of the letter Thursday, a day after Tooke tendered his immediate resignation following a “PBS NewsHour” report that he was under investigation for improper behavior. A spokeswoman for Isakson would not reveal the letter’s contents, but Energy and Environment News and the Daily Caller each reported that it claimed that Tooke offered a newly created staff position to a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair when he worked at an office in Florida.
Agriculture officials appointed an independent investigator to look into the claim. The accusation against a top official is especially stinging because the agency is investigating dozens of harassment claims, particularly from women in its firefighting division.
PBS, as well as The Washington Post, interviewed women who claimed that they had been raped, spied on while showering, groped, berated, pressured to quit and retaliated against for reporting abuses. During the reporting of both stories, women firefighters who spoke to reporters later rescinded their comments for fear of losing their careers.
It’s not clear whether officials knew of the incident raised by the letter before Isakson contacted the Agriculture Department. Both the USDA and Forest Service, a division of Agriculture, declined to respond to requests to confirm the accuracy of the news reports. They also declined to answer whether Tooke’s record was vetted during the process that led to his appointment in August, and if the allegation was discussed with the appointee.
In congressional hearings, Forest Service officials have been castigated by lawmakers for the agency’s failure to seriously discipline harassers even after allegations were proven.
Lawmakers were livid when firefighter Denice Rice testified in December 2016 that a fire supervisor who repeatedly groped her at the Eldorado National Forest in California was a known bully and “womanizer to female employees for years, and nobody did anything about it.”
Even after Rice’s account that the supervisor tried several times to lift her shirt and followed her to the bathroom was confirmed, he was allowed to retire with full benefits. Women who filed claims, their attorneys and union representatives said Rice’s story was not unusual and that the Forest Service has a male-dominated culture of harassment and an executive office dominated by men who often failed to act.
Attorney Sarah Martin said discrimination happened to her client, Abby Bolt, when she returned to work from maternity leave. Bolt, a fire battalion commander at Sequoia National Forest, complained to supervisors after noticing that she was being treated differently than her male peers — less flexible hours, less favorable hours and no leave — but nothing was done.
Martin said Tooke’s appointment and resignation are a bad sign. “This shows that it’s top-down. This is a disregard for responsibility,” Martin said. “Abby did everything she was supposed to do … went to her supervisors, tried working with the union, went to the Equal Employment Office.”
Martin continued, “at each step she was ignored and pushed off. What was most egregious to me about Agriculture’s situation is the way her complaints were processed or not processed. How it just fell through the cracks. She was begging to be heard, and nothing was done about it,” Martin said. “Now they have it out for her.”
After Tooke was sworn in, he issued a statement laying out his priorities, saying that the first would be “ensuring our work environment is safe, rewarding, respectful, free of harassment.” He claimed to prefer “an environment where you are recognized and valued for your contributions. I want every employee to be empowered to continuously improve our work.”
In his final statement, an email to workers, Tooke acknowledged that he had lost the confidence needed to execute his duties. “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,” he said.
Later in the statement, Tooke said: “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.”
Perdue echoed Tooke’s statement: “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.”
Tooke had been with the Forest Service since he was 18, serving as an executive staffer in Georgia, Florida and Washington state before landing in Washington. His resignation has further staggered an agency that’s wallowing in harassment claims, and some wonder whether the latest one could have been avoided.
“This is a disgusting, demoralizing, distasteful, detestable scandal facing the agency where I spent 20 years,” Gabbert wrote. “Looking at the sheer numbers, and knowing that allegations of sexual misconduct go all the way to the top, it is hard to fathom how anyone who has been mistreated can be optimistic that the harassment will stop, or that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
“This has to be the Forest Service’s number one priority — clean up this wreckage that is festering within their workforce. Would you recommend that your sister, daughter, girlfriend, or spouse apply for a job with the U.S. Forest Service?”
Houston Recalls Legacy of George Bush, Its Lone Star Yankee and Senior Booster
HOUSTON — Inside the airport that bears his name, George Herbert Walker Bush looks, at a distance, as if he’s wearing a cape.
An 8-foot-tall bronze statue at the Houston airport shows Mr. Bush, who , Barbara Bush, who died in April at the age of 92. After Mr. Bush’s death on Friday, Houston lost its two most famous residents in the span of seven months.
“George H.W. Bush served with valor and integrity as the 41st president of the United States,” Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, said in a statement. “But to Houstonians he was one of our most esteemed and relatable neighbors. He and his wife, Barbara Bush, were our sports teams’ biggest fans, and boosters for everything Houston.”
This was the man whose most memorable quote in years had to do with men’s hosiery. In 2012, as his fondness for wearing bright eye-catching socks was going strong, he explained that he simply “likes a good sock.” At his wife’s funeral at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Mr. Bush wore a pair of socks with a colorful stack-of-books design, a tribute to Mrs. Bush’s advocacy work for family literacy.
In Houston and its surrounding suburbs, Mr. Bush had not only an airport in his name but a park, a high school and a few more life-size statues. Above Buffalo Bayou, a bronze statue of Mr. Bush looks out into the distance with his hand in his pocket, gazing at, of all things, James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Mr. Bush’s tennis partner at the Houston Country Club. The statues of the two close friends face each other in the downtown park, separated by about 100 yards, in Houston’s oddest and longest-running staring contest.
“All I can do now,” Mr. Bush told The New York Times in 2011 about the statue, “is hope that the pigeons will be kind and gentle.”
Charles C. Foster, a Houston immigration lawyer and a longtime friend of the Bush family, came up with the idea for the George H.W. Bush Monument, which was unveiled in 2004. Mr. Foster recalled the day he sat in Mr. Bush’s office at 10000 Memorial Drive and asked for his blessing for the project.
“He looked at me and he sort of looked up at the ceiling,” Mr. Foster said. “He pointed to the ceiling and said, ‘Shouldn’t you wait until I’m up there?’ And then he said, pointing downward, ‘Or perhaps down there?’”
In 1990, Mr. Bush helped turn the eyes of the world to Houston.
As president, he brought thousands of reporters and foreign dignitaries to Houston that summer for the Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations, an annual gathering of the world’s economic powers. The summits had been held in a number of global cities — London, Tokyo, Paris, Venice — and Mr. Bush made the case that his adopted hometown belonged among such world-class company.
Houston was scrappier back then. The city was rebounding from an oil bust in the 1980s that crippled the economy, and it tried hard to present its best, and cleanest, face to the cameras and the visitors, picking up millions of pounds of trash, repaving roads and enlisting the aid of 12,000 volunteers.
“That was huge for Houston,” Mr. Foster said of the 1990 summit. “When the president had a chance, he could have picked some mountain retreat. But he picked his hometown. He was well aware of the chip on our shoulders that we didn’t feel like Houston got the recognition that it should.”
Now, with 2.3 million residents (compared with 1.6 million in 1990), Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, known as much for its diversity as its energy-capital status. George Bush High School, part of the Fort Bend school district, is 43 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black, 12 percent Asian and 4 percent white. More than 90 languages and dialects are spoken in the district.
Early Saturday morning in the upscale Tanglewood area, Houstonians paused at the gates at South Post Oak Lane and North West Oak Drive — the entrance to the gated community where Mr. Bush lived. Someone draped an American flag in the center of the gates, decorated for the holidays with Christmas wreaths.
Shirley Matthews, 66, a lifelong Houstonian who lives nearby, walked up and took a picture of the memorial for her mother. “He was just a good person,” she said. “He wasn’t perfect. But it’s family, and we love each other.”
A Close Race, a Mysterious Ballot and Control of Alaska’s House at Stake
With a crucial legislative seat in Alaska teetering toward a tie earlier this month, lawmakers in Juneau braced for the possibility of a coin toss deciding control of the state’s House of Representatives. Then a mysterious extra ballot emerged that threw the process into further disarray.
Amid several counts, the latest coming on Friday afternoon, a single ballot drew scrutiny across the state.
The state’s review board certified the race, between Kathryn Dodge, a Democrat, and Bart LeBon, a Republican, as a tie earlier this week, with exactly 2,661 votes going to each candidate. The extra ballot, for Ms. Dodge, could have settled the race for the Fairbanks-area district seat.
Later on Friday, the mystery appeared to have been solved — but the standoff over who won the election continued.
Samantha Miller, a spokeswoman for the state elections office, said that workers at Fairbanks’s No. 6 precinct told officials that a woman had come into the polling place to request a special needs ballot on behalf of her husband, who was outside in a vehicle.
The woman came back into the precinct. Her husband had made a mistake, she told the precinct worker, and needed a new ballot. She left behind the one he had already marked, thus making it a spoiled ballot.
The precinct chair told the worker who took the spoiled ballot to put it into a secrecy sleeve, “and that they would deal with it later in the day,” Ms. Miller said.
But instead, the spoiled ballot was put into a compartment with other questioned ballots.
Typically, Ms. Miller said, spoiled ballots are destroyed once they are accounted for. So, because the mystery ballot was found to be spoiled, it will not be counted, she said.
Still, that left the question of what happens if the recount that began on Friday afternoon ends in a tie — again.
Ms. Miller said that both candidates had five days to file a legal challenge to the results. And if the court decided the recount went as it should have, and the race was still a tie?
The prevailing candidate would be determined “by lot,” Ms. Miller said. “It could be a coin toss or some other way of deciding, as long as it’s random.”
It would not be the first time an Alaska race was determined by coin toss.
The state’s elections director at the time flipped an Alaska Mint medallion — the side with a walrus being heads and the side with the state seal being tails. It landed state seal side up.
Ms. Miller would not speculate about when the recount would be complete, but said both candidates were present, along with observers and officials.
Mr. LeBon did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Sara Harriger, a spokeswoman for Ms. Dodge, said in a statement that during Friday’s recount, one additional vote was found for Ms. Dodge and a challenged ballot was allowed for her opponent, Mr. LeBon, which meant that the tally stood at 2,662 apiece. Still tied.
Ms. Dodge said in a statement that she believed every legally cast ballot should be counted. “I just want everyone watching this process to take away a sense of confidence in our democratic system and a commitment to cast their votes in future races,” she said, “and knowing that their votes will matter.”
Ms. Dodge had said earlier on Friday that legal action “unfortunately” seemed probable.
“It’s certainly not what any of us expect when we set out to campaign, to find ourselves in a squeaker of this nature,” she said. “I hope we don’t have a coin toss. I don’t know quite what to say, but it doesn’t feel like it’s an appropriate way to settle an election.”
In Alaska, the repercussions of this race will be felt into the next legislative session, though party control of the House in Juneau will be far from clear-cut.
Political coalitions in Juneau do not always come down to party-line votes like in other state houses. Even if Ms. Dodge wins the race, Democrats would still not have an outright majority, and so members of the House will still be tasked with negotiating a coalition majority.
3 Killed After Pickup Truck Fleeing Border Patrol Hits Tire Spikes and Crashes
Three people in a packed pickup truck were killed on Thursday afternoon after the driver ran over tire spikes and crashed on a Southern California highway while trying to flee Border Patrol officers, the authorities said.
The officers turned on their vehicle’s emergency lights and began chasing the pickup truck on Interstate 8, near Boulevard, Calif., at around 4:20 p.m., according to the United States Customs and Border Protection. The authorities said they believed that the pickup truck had been illegally driven over the southern border and had crashed through an “iron bar vehicle barrier.” They said they identified it by matching a piece that was missing from the truck to one agents had spotted on the ground near the border, though they did not elaborate.
The pickup truck reached speeds of over 100 miles per hour, weaving between cars and bypassing others on the side of the highway, before it drove over spikes that the Border Patrol had placed on the road, the California Highway Patrol said. About a mile later, the truck spun out of control and flipped over, ejecting the nine people who were riding in the truck’s bed, the authorities said.
A woman inside the truck, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was killed, as were two people riding in the bed, the police said. Seven people who had “multiple serious injuries” were taken to the hospital, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said.
The driver, a United States citizen whose name was not released, was the only person wearing a seatbelt, the agency said. The California Highway Patrol took the man into custody, but it was not clear whether he had been charged. The identities of the passengers in the truck have not been released either.
“The investigation into the smuggling incident is ongoing,” the spokesman said in an email, “and the Border Patrol is fully cooperating with the CHP in their investigation of the collision.”
About an hour after the crash, the Border Patrol stopped another vehicle that officers believed had crossed over the border with the pickup truck, the agency said. The driver of that car was also arrested.