The Energy 202: Zinke's 'zero tolerance' for workplace harassment is tested

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THE LIGHTBULB

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke promised "zero tolerance for any type of workplace harassment" in his department. That mandate may soon face a test.

The top-ranking official at the National Park Service has apologized for behaving “in an inappropriate manner in a public hallway” in the wake of an inspector general’s investigation into an anonymous allegation that the official made a gesture involving his genitalia in front of other employees.

In a staff-wide email to Park Service employees on Friday, P. Daniel Smith wrote that as “a leader, I must hold myself to the highest standard of behavior in the workplace. I take my responsibility to create and maintain a respectful, collegial work environment very seriously. Moving forward, I promise to do better.”

Interior's press office did not reply to a request for comment.

What allegedly happened? As The Washington Post first reported, an anonymous agency employee wrote to Zinke in March to describe how Smith “grabbed his crotch and his penis and acted out as though he was urinating on the wall” shortly after taking office as the Park Service’s deputy director. The witness to the alleged crude gesture said it took place while Smith was telling a story to another employee at Interior headquarters, which houses the Park Service.

“I am not a prude,” the letter writer told Zinke, “but still cannot believe he was acting this out in the hallway of the NPS.” Zinke referred the matter to the department’s Office of the Inspector General, which opened a probe in March.

Since taking the helm of Interior, Zinke has pledged to root out harassment in his department. Last year, he fired four Interior employees for inappropriate behavior and has told Congress he would fire more people if necessary. The Park Service’s own internal survey has identified sexual harassment as a widespread problem within the agency, which oversees more than 84 million acres of park land through the United States. 

In his apology note, Smith said he was sorry to that anonymous employee and anyone else who witnessed the incident. “Workplace culture is our shared responsibility,” Smith wrote. “We must conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects the great pride we all have for the extraordinary parks and programs we represent.”

He insisted that his behavior did not constitute sexual harassment. “I recognize that the story was inappropriate for the workplace, even though it does not rise to the level of harassment,” Smith wrote. “I am very sorry for my mistake in telling this story and any discomfort it clearly caused.”

Still, the IG has yet to publicly weigh in. The watchdog bureau has completed its report and submitted it to Interior officials but will only make it public “at the end of June,” spokeswoman Nancy K. DiPaolo said.

What does the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission say? The website of the agency, which enforces laws against workplace discrimination, defines sexual harassment as including “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” that creates “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

Elsewhere within the Park Service, Interior officials had considered reassigning seven senior executives, The Post reported in April, including Alaska regional office chief Bert Frost. Frost was a witness to the incident with Smith. For now, Frost is still the top executive in the Alaska office.

The Park Service did not add anything further to Smith’s apology. “Smith’s message to National Park Service employees speaks for itself,” NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum said.

Smith is the highest-ranking NPS employee because President Trump has still not named a nominee to run the agency after 500 days in office.

POWER PLAYS

— Pillow talk for Pruitt?: Last September, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s director of scheduling and advance called the Trump International Hotel in Washington to inquire about purchasing one of its used mattresses, a “Trump Home Luxury Plush Euro Pillow Top” mattress. The inquiry was one of several unusual tasks that aide Millan Hupp was asked to complete for Pruitt, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey and Brady Dennis report. Hupp also “scouted apartments for her boss in some of the District’s hippest neighborhoods and helped arrange his family vacation to California over the New Year’s holiday so that the Pruitts could watch the Oklahoma Sooners play in the Rose Bowl.”

The details were outlined in a Monday letter from Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) and Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), two top Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee. In the letter, they called on chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to subpoena documents the agency is withholding.

— More proof there is a Trump tweet for every occasion: This one is from 2011:

More on Pruitt: 

  • Hupp sent several emails to real estate agents to help Pruitt find housing. She visited “probably more than 10” properties during her lunch hour over several months, Politico reports, and noted she was not paid for that effort, according to emails. Politico notes Pruitt and his wife “ultimately settled on an apartment on 13th and U streets, but left it shortly afterwards because ‘they were not comfortable in the area,’ according to Hupp.”
     
  • White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sander told reporters on Monday the White House is “certainly looking into” the mattress matter. “Certainly looking into the matter,” Sanders said, responding to Monday’s reports. “I couldn't comment on specifics of the furniture used in his apartment."

— Goodbye, San Francisco: Park Service officials are planning to move an office that helps oversee 60 national parks in Western states from its location in San Francisco to the more affordable Vancouver, Wash., KQED reported. The move will not only save the Park Service millions of dollars, it said, but is also meant to help Pacific West Regional Office with recruitment and staffing, as well. "We have struggled with recruitment in San Francisco for years due to the high cost of living," Stan Austin, the region's director, told staff in a memo. About 150 currently work in the regional office.

— Rick Perry defends Trump's coal and nuclear bailout: Energy Secretary Rick Perry said Trump was “right” to stop the shuttering of coal and nuclear plants, citing a greater cybersecurity threat. "Fuel secure units are retiring at an alarming rate that if unchecked will threaten our ability to recover from intentional attacks or from natural disasters," Perry said at the Energy Department's cybersecurity conference in Austin, per the Houston Chronicle. "The president is right to view grid resilience as a serious national security issue."

— "No exceptions:" A year ago, the White House ordered Cabinet members to stay on message in response to the president’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, despite how the decision divided Trump's top deputies at the time, E&E News reported. “We need all Cabinet agencies to prep statements of support for the decision being announced at 3:00pm in the Rose Garden,” a former White House press aide said in an email to at least nine Cabinet officials. "No exceptions," the aide wrote, noting talking points would be sent out after the call.

— Black lung fund may find itself in the red: A new study from the Government Accountability Office found that the federal black lung trust fund meant to help sick coal miners could have a $15 billion deficit in the next 30 years if a funding cut from Congress goes as planned, NPR reports. “The cut in the funding formula comes as NPR has reported and government researchers have confirmed an epidemic of the most advanced stages of black lung, along with unprecedented clusters of the disease in the central Appalachian states of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia,” per the report. The GAO report reviewed the viability of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, "which paid out $184 million in benefits in fiscal year 2017 to 25,700 coal miners suffering from the fatal mine dust disease and their dependents," according to NPR.

OIL CHECK

— "Monsanto" is no more: Agribusiness giant Monsanto will retire its name as a result of the mega-merger with German pharmaceutical company Bayer. The $63 billion takeover of Monsanto will be wrapped up on Thursday, Reuters reports, and the U.S. seed maker will cede its 117-year-old name. “The acquired products will retain their brand names and become part of the Bayer portfolio,” the German drugmaker said in a Monday statement.

Over the years, the name Monsanto brand had become associated with the alleged harms of pesticides and genetically modified crops. So the decision to drop the Monsanto name is “part of a wider campaign to win back consumer trust," Liam Condon, president of Bayer’s Crop Science Division, told The Post’s Caitlin Dewey and other reporters in a Monday press call. “The more important point now, once we change the company name, is that we talk about what the new company will stand for,” Condon said. “Just changing the name doesn’t do so much — we’ve got to explain to farmers and ultimately to consumers why this new company is important for farming, for agriculture and for food, and how that impacts consumers and the environment.” 

— Not quite the last straw:  McDonald's chief executive Steve Easterbrook said a main reason the fast-food giant won’t get rid of its single-use straws yet is there is nothing to replace them with. "The whole topic of what they call single-use plastics is on everyone's radar," Easterbrook told CNBC. "There isn't currently a viable alternative that's nonplastic at the moment, at the scale we need."

— Volkswagen vows to end animal experiments: The German carmaker made a pledge Monday that it will no longer support testing the effects of diesel exhaust on monkeys and other animals as the company continues to try to move away from its emissions-cheating scandal. “It is part of a push by Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest car manufacturer, to cope with the toll of a scheme that has resulted in tens of billions of dollars in settlements and fines, the dismissal of successive chief executives and the arrest and imprisonment of top company officials,” the New York Times reports.

DAYBOOK

​​​​​Today

  • The Senate Energy an Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the 2018 wildland fire management and programs at the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service.

Coming Up

  • The House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security holds a hearing on the Iran nuclear agreement on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on Onshore Energy Development Bills on Wednesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on several bills on Wednesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy will hold a hearing on hydropower licensing process on Thursday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the “Electric Grid of the Future” on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds an oversight hearing on “Wildfire Risk, Forest Health, and Associated Management Priorities of the U.S. Forest Service” on Thursday.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— "Volcano of Fire:" Dozens are dead after a volcano erupted over the weekend in Guatemala: