Politics & Government

Rape allegation against division manager reveals ‘highly sexualized’ culture at state agency

The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife offices in the Department of Natural Resources building on the Captiol Campus in Olympia on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.
The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife offices in the Department of Natural Resources building on the Captiol Campus in Olympia on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. toverman@theolympian.com

Editor’s note: This story was reported in collaboration with Austin Jenkins of public radio’s Northwest News Network.

An inappropriate sexual culture festered for more than a year within the upper ranks of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife until a rape allegation against a former division manager brought it to light.

A law firm hired by Fish and Wildlife to investigate claims of sexual harassment spawned after the alleged rape found that a group of workers in the agency’s upper echelon often held or tolerated sexually explicit conversations at work. Some engaged in other inappropriate behavior both on the clock and after hours.

The firm, MFR Law Group, also reported that the behavior, including at least one case of workplace sexual harassment, largely went unreported and unaddressed by the agency’s top leaders.

The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network obtained the report in May through a public records request. The report, issued in 2015, had not previously been made public.

The news outlets asked three experts on workplace culture to review the report.

Steve Hirschfeld, a San Francisco-based lawyer who investigates corporate harassment issues at Hirschfeld Kraemer, said the MFR Law Group investigation showed “a workplace that is highly sexualized with a lot of, presumably, unprofessional banter.”

More than a dozen people named in the report seemed aware of at least one instance of inappropriate behavior. Many were in management positions.

Information revealed by the MFR Law Group investigation forced reflection among top leaders at Fish and Wildlife, who say they were unaware of brewing problems. They took steps to respond to fallout of the rape charge and the agency’s problematic work environment.

But they also painted the issues as emanating from one small faction of an agency, which is composed of roughly 1,900 employees working in Olympia and six regional offices across the state.

“It looked to me like it was this small group of folks going beyond the norm,” said Joe Stohr, deputy director of Fish and Wildlife.

Stohr spoke for the department because Director Jim Unsworth joined Fish and Wildlife while police were investigating the rape allegations. The previous director announced he would retire a few months earlier.

Micah Alpern, a consultant at A.T. Kearney who has helped multiple Fortune 500 companies through culture changes, said the report also revealed other flaws in how the agency operates.

“It comes across as a culture of hesitancy to speak up,” he said.

Manager accused of rape

Scrutiny of the agency’s internal culture began after one of its division leaders, Greg Schirato, was accused of raping another agency employee.

Schirato has been charged with second-degree rape and first-degree burglary in the case. He’s pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in Thurston County Superior Court.

Schirato, known as an influential and well-liked figure within Fish and Wildlife, joined the agency in 1983 and worked his way up to become deputy assistant director for the Wildlife Division in 2010. He held that position until 2015 when he was fired in response to the MFR report and the rape allegations. Schirato is appealing to get his job back.

According to court records, the alleged rape occurred in December 2014.

Schirato attended the agency’s Christmas party and then went out drinking in downtown Olympia with three co-workers, the records show.

One of the women who accompanied Schirato and the others said she went home afterward and fell asleep while “very intoxicated,” according to police.

The next morning, she woke up with clothes undone and found signs of a break-in, according to court records.

She called police and said she had intermittent memories of being sexually assaulted while she slept, records show.

Schirato, 55, was charged in April 2015 after detectives said they linked DNA and other evidence to him.

His attorney, Richard Woodrow, said he is confident Schirato will be proven innocent. He said Schirato did not enter the woman’s home that evening.

The woman who made the allegations declined to be interviewed for this story due to the pending criminal trial. She has since left Fish and Wildlife.

In January 2015 — while police were still investigating the rape accusation — Schirato and the woman made accusations of sexual harassment against each other at the agency.

The resulting 29-page report by the MFR Law Group found Schirato sexually harassed a woman who reported directly to him and who is not involved in the rape case. The report shows that Schirato told that woman she would be “fun at night” and made comments such as “I can’t believe how beautiful you are; you look so amazing.”

Schirato denied the harassment claim.

According to the report, four women also told MFR investigators that Schirato looked at them or watched them “in an inappropriate manner.”

In addition, some co-workers told MFR that Schirato tried to recruit them for sex.

The MFR report also states that Schirato hosted parties attended by colleagues. People went skinny dipping during at least one of those gatherings, the report shows.

The report states Schirato routinely talked about sex at work.

The firm says at least 11 people reported hearing Schirato make sexual comments or tell stories with sexual overtones. One woman, a manager at Fish and Wildlife, said Schirato brought up “getting naked at parties ... more than a dozen times” at work.

A man who used to be Schirato’s subordinate told MFR investigators that Schirato would talk about sex the same way someone “might go to the office and talk about NCAA basketball.”

Even Stohr, the agency’s deputy director, said Schirato once told him about being naked in a hot tub with women while on vacation in Las Vegas. Stohr said he redirected the conversation, which happened briefly in passing.

Schirato told MFR investigators he acted appropriately while on the job, saying he had a “bright line” at work about not mixing his personal and professional life or talking about sex, according to the report.

The report states the woman who reported being raped did not harass Schirato at work, and he did not harass her.

But it says Schirato likely made inappropriate sexual comments about her to others.

Investigators found the two had a consensual sexual relationship before the rape accusations, but the woman disputes that characterization of their relationship.

The report also notes that several people said the woman was, at times, “inappropriately flirtatious and unprofessional.” It also says seven people complained her work outfits were too revealing.

Asked why the report addressed the behavior and attire of an alleged rape victim, Stohr said the law firm decided it was part of evaluating how much inappropriate behavior was happening at Fish and Wildlife.

“There were counter accusations, so the investigator I think was looking at both sides,” Stohr said. “He said, she said — that was part of the evaluation.”

Woodrow, the attorney representing Schirato, said the culture at Fish and Wildlife contributed to the rape allegations against his client.

He said upper management should have policed the line between personal and professional lives, and the sexual environment “set the background for the accusation to be made.”

“Not only did people cross that line, but other people saw it, and nobody seemed to feel that that was an issue,” Woodrow said.

Director’s office unaware

Some people within the agency told MFR investigators the inappropriate behavior by Schirato and other managers and employees was open and tolerated.

Still, the law firm concluded top-level management didn’t know about the claims of harassment or the sexual culture within the department until rape allegations and harassment complaints.

Lower-level managers received two complaints against Schirato prior to the harassment claim that sparked the report, but neither senior management nor human resources was informed of them, the report states.

Two women who witnessed what they called inappropriate behavior by Schirato told MFR investigators they didn’t want to raise the issue with their superiors because “it was important to have a good working relationship” with Schirato.

Others said they either chose to redirect conversation, cut Schirato off or address it directly with him.

At least one woman told the firm she was a “consensual and active participant” in sexual conversations in and out of the office.

Alpern, the workplace culture expert, said the passive response appeared to stem from an agency culture he described as being “all about being a family.”

“Just as if with a family, you don’t always speak up when you should to your mom or dad if you disagree with them because you know they’re in charge,” he said.

If people don’t speak up, the problem compounds, said Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

“When you have managers or supervisors who don’t respond right away or at all, that inaction has the outcome of normalizing an environment that can become completely dysfunctional,” Houser said.

Stohr, the Fish and Wildlife deputy director, said being unaware of the problematic culture doesn’t exclude management from fault.

“I don’t think you’ve heard me say we’re not culpable,” Stohr said in an interview. “I wish we did know more.”

Moving forward

Alpern and Houser said they believe the report shows an opportunity for a larger reboot of workplace culture at Fish and Wildlife.

Houser said organizations such as the National Football League and major universities have treated domestic violence, sexual harassment and other misbehavior as a symptom of a larger problem.

A state agency could and should do the same, she said.

“You can use some horrible events to, hopefully, create environments that are better for everybody in the future,” Houser said.

Some suggestions from workplace experts included starting with wide-ranging anonymous feedback, beefed-up harassment training and empowering lower-level employees to bring complaints to their superiors faster.

Alpern also said leaders should be more aware of who is having an influence across the organization, take a deep look at company policies and make a concerted effort immediately to stop anyone speaking inappropriately.

In the aftermath of the rape allegations, agency leadership sent out all-staff notes about workplace standards and urged employees to report misbehavior and harassment.

They reviewed their sexual-harassment policy to make sure it was strong enough, Stohr said. He has stressed better communication among staff.

Unsworth, the agency director, also made counselors available, including help from SafePlace sexual assault advocacy specialists, and held group discussions about work environment, support and healing with the Thurston County Dispute Resolution Center.

Stohr said the agency also has been exploring how to hire more women in an agency dominated by older white men.

“Trying to bring in people that aren’t 50-year-old white guys is a challenge for us,” he said.

No agency-wide reboot on culture took place, Stohr said.

No other employees were disciplined as a result of the MFR law group report, he added.

“It does worry me a lot that there are some people that feel like they can’t bring things forward,” Stohr said. “But I don’t have a sense that’s a widely pervasive kind of attitude.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein