Politics & Government

Report of sexually explicit ‘locker room talk’ leads to firings at state fish hatchery

The Wells Dam in 2010, near Pateros, Wash. The Wells Hatchery Complex is adjacent to the dam and is used as mitigation for fishery losses caused by the dam.
The Wells Dam in 2010, near Pateros, Wash. The Wells Hatchery Complex is adjacent to the dam and is used as mitigation for fishery losses caused by the dam. Douglas County PUD

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

The four highest-ranking employees of a state fish hatchery were fired last week after an investigation into sexual harassment claims found rampant sexual conversations and hazing that led at least one woman to leave the office.

A private investigator hired by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to scrutinize behavior at the 17-person Wells Hatchery complex near Pateros found three male fish specialists routinely talked about sex and asked explicit sexual questions of coworkers.

The investigator also reported the trio used insulting or profane nicknames for coworkers, such as “Miss Piggy,” and talked about the bodies of women who were visitors or state employees.

The hatchery’s manager, Jayson Wahls, was the fourth employee fired. Investigators said he did not stop “locker room talk” by subordinates and even brought Maxim magazines for the men’s bathroom at the hatchery.

The consulting firm Daphne R. Schneider and Associates said in its late-June report to Fish and Wildlife that Wahls “essentially condoned and promoted this sexualized atmosphere and sent a message to employees that it was acceptable.”

Fish and Wildlife is not pursuing criminal charges against the four because their misconduct did not appear to rise to that level, agency spokesman Bruce Botka said. Also, the consulting firm did not conclude anyone had been sexually harassed.

Fish and Wildlife Director Jim Unsworth said Monday the report showed graphic language that left him “startled and taken aback.” He said the behavior was unacceptable and the proper response was to fire the four managers.

“Looking at the evidence and how long it occurred and how it’s impacted some folks, it just seemed that was the appropriate level to take care of it,” Unsworth said.

The former employees could not be reached for comment. They can still appeal their firing. A lawyer for a union representing Fish and Wildlife employees did not return a request for comment.

The consultant’s report was obtained Friday through a public records request by The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network.

The firings come after the news outlets reported last week on a 2015 workplace investigation that found a sexual office culture among some in the Fish and Wildlife department’s upper ranks.

That investigation, which had not previously been made public, began because Greg Schirato, a deputy assistant director for the Wildlife Division, was accused in 2015 of raping a coworker.

Schirato denies the allegations and has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree rape and first degree burglary in a pending criminal case.

He was fired, but no other disciplinary action was taken after the workplace inquiry.

Allegations in the report

Most of the 30-page report on the Wells Hatchery centers on the behavior of three top-ranking fish hatchery specialists.

One of the three is Scott Moore, who is a supervisor who reports to Wahls. The News Tribune and The Olympian are naming him and Wahls in this story because they had supervisory roles and responsibilities. The newspapers are not naming the other two employees fired because they were not supervisors.

A redacted version of the report appears to show at least seven people said Moore and the other two specialists “frequently” used sexual language, told sexual jokes, asked sexual questions and made sexual references. This usually happened in the hatchery’s break room.

The three deny much of the conversation or crude behavior took place, but all acknowledged some of it happened.

This alleged behavior went so far that it drove one woman from the hatchery, the report says.

She told the investigator “the major reason” she left for a seasonal position at the nearby Methow Hatchery was because of “constant, daily sexual banter” and negative comments from Moore and one of the specialists about her work and the work of other employees.

She said the three men frequently asked her sexual questions or made crude comments, the report says. At least one suggested she prostitute herself when she works on fishing boats in Alaska because she could “make a lot of money,” according to the report.

The woman told the investigator she didn’t complain about the behavior to Wahls because “she did not believe it would do any good, and was concerned it could be held against her.”

The investigator’s report was sparked in February when two employees of the nearby Omak Hatchery told a Fish and Wildlife police officer about concerns they had regarding behavior at Wells.

The report says several people who have recently left the Wells Hatchery said the sexual atmosphere was “part, or a significant part of their reason for leaving.”

Wahls told the investigator he did not hear much of the sexual banter or name calling at the hatchery and said what he did hear was all in “good fun.” He said he did not stop it because nobody had complained about it, the report says.

Moore acknowledged sexual talk in the break room happened, the report says. But he downplayed the significance of the behavior, telling the investigator it was “just a group of guys” engaging in “locker room talk” and that it “has never gotten out of hand.”

The report says 10 employees “regularly” heard sexual comments and jokes in the break room while Moore was there.

One of the specialists denied some instances of sexual conversations to the investigator. He acknowledged others or had slightly different recollections of them.

Another told the investigator “sex comes up every once in a while” and said it “could be” that comments had been made about the bodies of women who were visiting the hatchery. He denied some of the sexual comments and questions others accused him of saying in the workplace.

Coworkers reported to the investigator all three men used crude, sexual nicknames for others, such as “vag.”

While the men mostly denied using the nicknames, Moore and one of the specialists admitted to calling one employee “tripod” as a reference to male genitalia, the report says.

Possible agency changes

Unsworth, the Fish and Wildlife director, said Monday that agency managers are expected to keep their workplaces “free of harassment” and make sure “people feel confident to come forward” with complaints about misbehavior.

When they don’t, they risk being fired, he said.

He also painted the agency as one that may need to improve its workplace culture and management training.

Unsworth said the reports of a sexual environment at Wells Hatchery made him question whether the methods the agency was using are effective.

“In this case, I think you could say probably not with these individuals,” he said.

Unsworth said he is considering an agency-wide look to see whether fear of reporting misbehavior is common. The 2015 report of a sexual culture among some at headquarters states it went on for more than a year because nobody reported issues to top management or human resources.

Barbara Baker, a commissioner on the nine-member Fish and Wildlife Commission that sets policy at the agency, said the department’s sexual harassment policy is strong but managers need to implement it better to encourage reporting misconduct.

She recommended an “assertive” training program for staff members that “goes far beyond what we currently do as an agency.” She said managers need to reinforce alternative ways for people to report problems.

“Staff need to understand that there are other avenues to report this kind of conduct and nothing can happen until it is reported,” she said. “Then after that, they need to trust that, to the extent possible, their privacy will be respected and also that management will investigate or take other actions to ensure the problem is remediated.”

Unsworth said Fish and Wildlife is considering sending higher-level managers more often to the agency’s remote outposts to check in. The agency owns or operates 83 fish hatcheries, as well as other rural offices.

Unsworth said some agency issues might stem from being a male-dominated environment. The Wells Hatchery complex, which has oversight of some small nearby agency pit-stops, currently has 10 men and two women. The roughly 1,900-employee agency is about 31 percent women, according to Botka, the agency spokesman.

While Unsworth said fishing and hunting fields have made strides in hiring women since his early days working for Idaho, his agency has a ways to go.

He said Fish and Wildlife administrators started talking Monday about hiring people to better “seek out and promote people of different genders and different ethnicities.”

“We’re not experts on that,” Unsworth said.

State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said Fish and Wildlife should look to get help for an agency culture that he said needs “serious work” in places.

“I think that 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 and the ability to change cultures,” said Blake, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

The private investigator’s report also notes other issues at the agency.

It says Wahls likely misused government funds in several ways, such as borrowing hatchery equipment for personal use. The report hatchery employees raised safety issues, but they were outside the scope of the investigator’s work.

Preliminary information from a Fish and Wildlife officer said there were allegations that Wells Hatchery employees were coached to provide false numbers for fish stocking records.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein