The last few weeks in Washington have been marked by major sexual misconduct scandals. But perhaps the most high-profile high-profile case being swept under the rug involves accusations of domestic violence.
In an official State Department document, HR Policy Coordinator Megan Lewis does her best to warn agency employees that retaliating against a sexual misconduct accuser could endanger their career. But after she went public with the allegations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suspended Lewis, and she was not reinstated in her position by the time of Pompeo’s confirmation hearing. Lewis was later quietly reassigned to a “Duty and Private Time” position within the department’s Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee.
The episode — and the silence surrounding it — shows just how difficult it is for government agencies to take cases of domestic violence seriously. For years, the Obama administration has addressed this problem at the federal level. But the Trump administration has yet to go public with any position on the issue.
While Pompeo himself has not responded to media requests about the Lewis case, he pledged to include the issue when he unveiled his plan to revamp the department’s personnel system in late February.
“We must continue to work to ensure harassment and discrimination in our workplaces is minimized, reported, and investigated,” he said in a speech at the Pentagon. “We must strengthen our ability to stop workplace discrimination, regardless of their cause.”
Pompeo echoed these concerns in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 28.
“I heard that just last month, in a hearing, this is a program in the State Department where someone who filed a discrimination complaint was moved, was demoted, was essentially moved to a desk job,” Pompeo said, when asked about the status of the Lewis case. “What do you think was happening there?”
Pompeo’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, did not respond to a request for comment about the case.
Since becoming secretary of state, Pompeo has prioritized bringing back morale to the department — and keeping political appointees and bureaucrats motivated. As a newly minted ambassador, he delivered the same message to his staff.
“Sometimes, as the focus shifts from large-scale decisions to more granular tasks, it is hard to remember just how meaningful these tasks are and what a difference they make for our citizens,” he said in a Nov. 28 speech to the diplomatic corps. “Indeed, I believe that a public servant’s biggest contribution is in keeping his or her eyes on what is most important in their specific mission and then doing everything they can to help make that mission a reality.”
And during his confirmation hearing, Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, made clear that the department and its leaders must also take steps to prevent sexual harassment in their ranks.
“While this kind of conduct clearly represents unacceptable behavior, it is even more troubling that our personnel policies do not specifically address these crimes,” Cardin said in his opening statement. “As you make personnel decisions that may impact a person’s career, I urge you to ensure that you are well-equipped to deal with this type of misconduct in the State Department.”
Whether Pompeo addresses the problem will likely depend in part on how employees in his department respond to it.
In a carefully worded memo provided to The New York Times in December, Karen Hawkins, the State Department’s assistant secretary for international organizations, urged employees to report harassment.
“We encourage all those who have faced sexual harassment or other discriminatory or retaliatory treatment to confront the issue with their supervisor,” Hawkins wrote. “If a coworker or supervisor displays behaviors that create an environment where employees feel unsafe and a victim of harassment or retaliation, or acts in an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, humiliating, or threatening manner toward the employee, we will act swiftly.”