Another 'Sexualized Culture' Investigation At Fish And Wildlife Leads To Firings

Aug 16, 2017

Four Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife employees were fired this month after an investigation found an “extremely sexualized culture” at a fish hatchery on the Columbia River.

One woman who worked at the hatchery told investigators she sought a seasonal job elsewhere to escape the “constant, daily sexual banter.”

The misconduct at the Wells Hatchery south of Pateros follows a 2015 report that found a sexual climate among some members of the executive management team at Fish and Wildlife headquarters in Olympia. That earlier report was commissioned after an employee allegedly raped a colleague after an agency Christmas party. The employee accused of rape, Greg Schirato, was fired and is appealing to get his job back.

Public radio and The News Tribune and Olympian newspapers made that 2015 investigation public last week.

The next day, Fish and Wildlife fired the four employees at the Wells Hatchery.

An explicit 30-page report

The behavior at the Wells Hatchery included making sexual jokes, asking “crude, inappropriate” sexual questions of employees and commenting on the bodies of women who visited the hatchery.

Credit Jessica Randklev / The News Tribune

The investigation centered on the four highest ranking employees at the Wells Hatchery: three fish hatchery specialists and the hatchery complex manager.

The hatchery is owned by the Douglas County Public Utility District, but operated by Fish and Wildlife under a contract. According to a private investigator’s report, the three specialists engaged in explicit sexual discussions at work and the hatchery manager did not intervene to stop the behavior.

The investigation into misconduct began in February of this year. That’s when two employees at the nearby Omak Hatchery, part of the Wells Hatchery Complex, told a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife police officer about concerns they had regarding the behavior of some staff at the Wells Hatchery.

The allegations were so serious that the officer alerted his sergeant who in turn sent the information to Jim Brown, the Fish and Wildlife director in charge of the region where the hatchery is located. From there Brown alerted headquarters in Olympia.

In late March, Fish and Wildlife hired Daphne R. Schneider Associates, a Seattle-based private investigation firm, to interview witnesses about allegations of misconduct, harassment and sexual harassment.

The resulting 30-page report issued in June described in explicit detail a work environment where employees were referred to by sexualized nicknames, jokes were made about treating sore throats with semen and a hatchery employee was told she should prostitute herself on the fishing boats she worked on seasonally in Alaska. That employee told investigators the atmosphere at Wells Hatchery was “way worse” than anything she had encountered on fishing boats in Alaska.

Public radio, The News Tribune and The Olympian obtained a redacted version of the report through a public records request.

‘Startled and taken aback' by the report’s findings

In interviews, the men accused of the behavior referred to it as “locker room talk.” They also denied many of the allegations.

The fired employees were fish hatchery specialists Scott Moore, Abel Gonzalez and Dana Marsh and their boss, fish hatchery complex manager Jayson Wahls.

Efforts to reach the men were unsuccessful and a message left with their union attorney was not immediately returned. All four have the right to challenge their firings through their union.

But Fish and Wildlife Director Jim Unsworth, who said he was “startled and taken aback” by the report’s findings, said there was enough evidence to justify firing the employees.

“A bunch of behavior was occurring there that was certainly not acceptable in any workplace and definitely not in a Fish and Wildlife workplace,” Unsworth said.

The report paints Moore, Gonzalez and Marsh as perpetrators of a work environment where profanity, crude sexual talk and sexual hazing was commonplace and colleagues were called names like “fat,” “lazy,” and “stupid.”

Moore, who was the direct supervisor of Gonzalez and Marsh, acknowledged engaging in sexual talk in the workplace, but downplayed it, according to the report, as “’just a group of guys…’ engaging in ‘locker room talk’ and that it ‘has never gotten out of hand.’”

As many as ten other employees of 17 at the hatchery complex told a different story.

“Many witnesses who currently or have worked at Wells Hatchery described an extremely sexualized workplace,” the report said. Others, though, who worked at the hatchery told investigators that they did not perceive the workplace as “particularly sexualized.”

Gonzalez was described by colleagues as someone who was supportive and good to work with, but who also frequently made sexual comments and jokes.

Gonzalez told investigators there was “a lot of locker room talk” at the hatchery and gave the example of a new fish pathologist who visited and sat on a bouncy chair. “When she left, people commented that she was a ‘hot chick’ and called her ‘bouncing Betsy,’” the report said.

Marsh acknowledged to investigators that “sex comes up comes up every once in a while,” but said everyone was involved.

“None of us in there are any angels … and we’re all guys … joking around,” the report quoted him as saying. Regarding nicknames, like “Tripod,” which referred to a male employee’s penis, Marsh said those are “for a laugh” and are “harmless.”

Despite denials of inappropriate behavior, the report concluded that Moore, Gonzalez and Marsh, “on a more probable than not basis,” participated in creating a sexualized workplace culture at the Wells Hatchery.

Further allegations of misconduct

The report also concluded that their boss, hatchery manager Jayson Wahls, failed to address the sexualized workplace culture and, in fact, contributed to it by bringing the men’s magazine Maxim to work.

“By not stopping the sexualized atmosphere at Wells Hatchery, and in fact by contributing to it by bringing magazines with sexual content to the worksite, Mr. Wahls essentially condoned and promoted this sexualized atmosphere and sent a message to employees that it was acceptable,” the report said.

While Wahls acknowledged there was “locker room talk” in the workplace, he told investigators he was rarely in the break room, where much of the sexual banter and hazing took place, and that no one had ever complained to him about the workplace climate.

A former Wells Hatchery employee told investigators that she didn’t complain to Wahls “because she did not believe it would do any good, and was concerned it could be held against her.”

The report also found that Wahls dumped his trash from home in the hatchery dumpster, borrowed hatchery tools and equipment for his personal use and was in possession of a hatchery snow blower that was destroyed when his house burned in the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire.

Witnesses also told the investigator that they believed Wahls displayed favoritism toward a group of subordinates he socialized with outside of work. That included promoting two friends. Wahls told investigators that the promotions were done according to union and department rules and that no favoritism was involved.

While the investigation focused on allegations of misconduct and sexual harassment, the investigator noted that several other issues arose including technical and safety issues relating to fish hatchery operations, allegations of retaliation and employee performance concerns. But since these were outside the scope of the investigation they were not addressed in the report.

The Fish and Wildlife officer who initiated the investigation went further and identified potential violations of state and federal law, including “indecent liberties,” “theft of government property, and falsification of official records relating to hatchery fish production.”

However, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife said the agency is not pursuing criminal charges because the “evidence of workplace misconduct has not indicated criminal violations.”

Sending a message throughout the agency

State Rep. Brian Blake, the Democratic chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said Fish and Wildlife hasn’t done enough to address agency culture.

“The Commission who governs this agency needs to step up and through the director communicate very strongly that there needs to be somebody in charge that does have this expertise in the ability to change cultures,” Blake said.

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Barbara Baker, who joined the nine-member commission in January, called the contents of the Wells Hatchery report “appalling” and said after reading the report she showed up at Fish and Wildlife headquarters unannounced to meet with the director and deputy director.

“My strong recommendation … was to enact an assertive training program for staff that goes far beyond what we currently do as an agency,” said Baker who is the former chief clerk of the Washington House.

Baker said she’s also concerned about the climate within the agency for women who make up less than a third of the roughly 1,900 staff.

“Is there a glass ceiling for women in the agency? I don’t have any idea,” Baker said. “Are women leaving when they get to a certain level because they have another opportunity and they don’t care for the culture in the agency? Again, I don’t know. But I do know people will be looking into that.”

Unsworth, the agency’s director, suggested the firings of the four staff members will send a message throughout the agency.

“I think there will be some people that will take notice that we’re taking this seriously and it won’t be tolerated,” Unsworth said.

A spokeswoman for Douglas County PUD said her agency was unaware of the workplace investigation when it signed a new contract with Fish and Wildlife in June to continue operating the hatchery.

“We really don’t have any comment on the personnel issues,” said the PUD’s Meaghan Vibbert.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife operates 83 fish hatcheries statewide. The Wells Hatchery Complex includes the hatchery at the Wells Dam and four auxiliary sites. Of the 17 positions at the complex, four are now vacant because of the firings, and one more position is open because of a resignation. Of the remaining 12 employees, only two are women.

This story was reported in collaboration with Walker Orenstein of The News Tribune and The Olympian.