Sexual Harassment: VA Needs to Better Protect Employees

What GAO Found

According to data from the most recent Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) survey in 2016, an estimated 22 percent of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees, and 14 percent of federal employees overall, experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace from mid-2014 through mid-2016. VA has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace, but some aspects of the policies and of the complaint processes may hinder those efforts.

  • Misalignment of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Director position: VA’s EEO Director oversees both the EEO complaint process, which includes addressing sexual harassment complaints, and general personnel functions. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this dual role does not adhere to one of its key directives and creates a potential conflict of interest when handling EEO issues.
  • Incomplete or outdated policies and information: VA has an overarching policy for its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment of its employees. However, some additional policies and information documents are not consistent with VA’s overarching policy, are outdated, or are missing information. For example, they may not include all options employees have for reporting sexual harassment, which could result in confusion among employees and managers.
  • Delayed finalization of Harassment Prevention Program (HPP): VA has not formally approved the directive or the implementing guidance for its 4-year-old HPP, which seeks to prevent harassment and address it before it becomes unlawful. Lack of formal approval could limit the program’s effectiveness.

VA uses complaint data to understand the extent of sexual harassment at the agency, but such data are incomplete. For example, VA compiles information on allegations made through the EEO process and HPP, but does not require managers who receive complaints to report them to VA centrally. As a result, VA is not aware of all sexual harassment allegations across the agency. Without these data, VA may miss opportunities to better track prevalence and to improve its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment.

VA provides training for all employees and managers, but the required training does not have in-depth information on identifying and addressing sexual harassment and does not mention HPP. Some facilities within VA’s administrations supplement the training, but providing additional information is not mandatory. Requiring additional training on sexual harassment could improve VA employees’ knowledge of the agency’s policies and help prevent and address sexual harassment.

Why GAO Did This Study

In June 2020, GAO issued a report entitled Sexual Harassment: Inconsistent and Incomplete Policies and Information Hinder VA’s Efforts to Protect Employees (GAO-20-387). This testimony summarizes the findings and recommendations from that report, including (1) the extent to which VA has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment of VA employees, (2) how available data inform VA about sexual harassment of its employees, and (3) training VA provides to employees on preventing and addressing sexual harassment.

What GAO Recommends

GAO made seven recommendations in its June 2020 report, including that VA ensure its EEO Director position is not responsible for personnel functions; require managers to report all sexual harassment complaints centrally; and require additional employee training. VA concurred with all but the EEO Director position recommendation, which GAO continues to believe is warranted.

For more information, contact Cindy S. Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.

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    Today, the Department of Justice filed a petition in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts to enforce Bain & Company’s compliance with the department’s Civil Investigative Demand (CID).  
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  • Statement by Attorney General William P. Barr on Mexico’s Proposed Legislation
    In Crime News
    Attorney General William P. Barr gave the following statement in response to Mexico's proposed legislation:
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  • Justice Department Files Complaint against Jeffrey Lowe and Tiger King LLC for Violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act
    In Crime News
    Today, the Department of Justice filed a civil complaint against Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe, Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park LLC, and Tiger King LLC, to address recurring inhumane treatment and improper handling of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act.
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  • Justice Department Requires Waste Management To Divest Assets In Order To Proceed With Advanced Disposal Services Acquisition
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that Waste Management, Inc. (WMI) will be required to divest 15 landfills, 37 transfer stations, 29 hauling locations, over 200 waste collection routes, and other assets in order to proceed with its $4.6 billion acquisition of Advanced Disposal Services, Inc. (ADS).  The department said that without the divestiture, the proposed acquisition would substantially lessen competition for small container commercial waste collection or municipal solid waste disposal services in over 50 local markets.
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  • United States Takes Action Against Violators of Religious Freedom
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Title X Family Planning Program Turns 50
    In Human Health, Resources and Services
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  • Department of Justice Begins Second Distribution of Funds Recovered Through Asset Forfeiture to Compensate Victims of Western Union Fraud Scheme, Bringing Total to Over $300 Million
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice announced today that the Western Union Remission Fund began its second distribution of approximately $148 million in funds forfeited to the U.S. government from the Western Union Company (Western Union) to approximately 33,000 victims located in the United States and abroad. These victims, many of whom were elderly victims of consumer fraud and abuse, will be recovering the full amount of their losses.
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  • United States Citizen Who Joined ISIS Charged With Material Support Violations
    In Crime News
    An indictment and arrest warrant were unsealed today in the federal court of the District of Columbia charging Lirim Sylejmani, a Kosovo-born naturalized U.S. citizen, with conspiring to provide, providing, and attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a designated foreign terrorist organization, and receiving training from ISIS, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2339B and 2339D. 
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  • U.S. Government and the State of Illinois Reach Agreement with Peoria and the Greater Peoria Sanitary District to Reduce Water Pollution from Sewer System
    In Crime News
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Justice, and the state of Illinois today announced an agreement with the city of Peoria and the Greater Peoria Sanitary District (GPSD) that will yield significant reductions of sewage discharges from Peoria’s wastewater systems into the Illinois River and Peoria Lake.
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  • Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations: DOD Needs to Take Action to Help Ensure Superiority
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The electromagnetic spectrum (the spectrum) consists of frequencies worldwide that support many civilian and military uses, from mobile phone networks and radios to navigation and weapons. This invisible battlespace is essential to Department of Defense (DOD) operations in all domains—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. The interruption of U.S. forces' access to the spectrum can result in a military disadvantage, preventing U.S. forces from operating as planned and desired. According to the studies by DOD and others that GAO reviewed for its December 2020 report on military operations in the spectrum, adversaries, such as China and Russia, are also aware of the importance of the spectrum and have taken significant steps to improve their own capabilities that challenge DOD and its operations. For example, studies described how China has formed new military units and fielded new unmanned aerial vehicles with spectrum warfare capabilities, and Russian electromagnetic warfare forces have demonstrated their effectiveness through successful real-world applications against U.S. and foreign militaries. These developments are particularly concerning in the context of challenges to DOD's spectrum superiority. GAO's analysis of the studies highlighted DOD management challenges such as dispersed governance, limited full-time senior-level leadership, outdated capabilities, a lengthy acquisition process, increased spectrum competition and congestion, and a gap in experienced staff and realistic training. GAO found that DOD had issued strategies in 2013 and 2017 to address spectrum-related challenges, but did not fully implement either strategy because DOD did not assign senior leaders with appropriate authorities and resources or establish oversight processes for implementation. DOD published a new strategy in October 2020, but GAO found in December 2020 the department risks not achieving the new strategy's goals because it had not taken key actions—such as identifying processes and procedures to integrate spectrum operations across the department, reforming governance structures, and clearly assigning leadership for strategy implementation. Also, it had not developed oversight processes, such as an implementation plan, that would help ensure accountability and implementation of the 2020 strategy goals (see figure). Actions to Ensure DOD Superiority in the Electromagnetic Spectrum Why GAO Did This Study The spectrum is essential for facilitating control in operational environments and affects operations in the air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace domains. Spectrum use is pervasive across warfighting domains and thus maintaining or achieving spectrum superiority against an adversary is critical to battlefield success. This statement summarizes: (1) the importance of the spectrum; (2) challenges to DOD's superiority in the spectrum; and (3) the extent to which DOD has implemented spectrum-related strategies and is positioned to achieve future goals. This statement is based on GAO's December 2020 report (GAO-21-64) and updates conducted in March 2021. For the report, GAO analyzed 43 studies identified through a literature review, reviewed DOD documentation, and interviewed DOD officials and subject matter experts. For the updates, GAO reviewed materials that DOD provided in March 2021.
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  • On the First Anniversary of the Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi 
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Department Of Justice Is Combatting COVID-19 Fraud But Reminds The Public To Remain Vigilant
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice is reminding members of the public to be vigilant against fraudsters who are using the COVID-19 pandemic to exploit American consumers and organizations and to cheat disaster relief programs.  In particular, the department is warning the public about scams perpetrated through websites, social media, emails, robocalls, and other means that peddle fake COVID-19 vaccines, tests, treatments, and protective equipment, and also about criminals that fabricate businesses and steal identities in order to defraud federal relief programs and state unemployment programs. 
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  • 10th Anniversary of the Revolution in Tunisia
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  • Statement by Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division on Veterans Day
    In Crime News
    The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and its Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative would like to wish a happy Veterans Day to our soldiers, both past and present. We owe you our thanks, but more than that, we owe you our freedom. As the head of the Civil Rights Division, I am entrusted with enforcing laws that protect the rights of the brave men and women of our nation’s armed forces, and the veterans who have served in the past. Enforcement of these very important federal civil rights laws helps ensure that these men and women can continue to safeguard our freedom. 
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  • Former Attorney for Municipalities in Puerto Rico Sentenced for Bribery
    In Crime News
    A former attorney for three municipalities in Puerto Rico was sentenced today to 10 years in prison after he was convicted of four counts of bribery with respect to programs receiving federal funds.
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  • Federal Tactical Teams: Characteristics, Training, Deployments, and Inventory
    In U.S GAO News
    Within the executive branch, GAO identified 25 federal tactical teams, and the characteristics of these teams varied. The 25 tactical teams were across 18 agencies, such as agencies within the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Energy, and the Interior. The number of reported team members per team ranged from two to 1,099. More than half (16 of 25) of the teams reported that they are composed of team members working for the team on a collateral basis. Most teams (17 of 25) had multiple units across various locations. Photos of Federal Tactical Teams in Action Tactical teams generally followed a similar training process, with initial training, specialty training, and ongoing training requirements. Nearly all teams (24 of 25) reported that new team members complete an initial tactical training course, which ranged from 1 week to 10 months. For example, potential new team members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Hostage Rescue Team complete a 10-month initial training that includes courses on firearms; helicopter operations; and surveillance, among others. Nearly all teams (24 of 25) reported offering specialized training to some team members, such as in sniper operations and breaching. Nearly all teams (24 of 25) also reported having ongoing training requirements, ranging from 40 hours per year to over 400 hours per year. The number and types of deployments varied across the 25 tactical teams for fiscal years 2015 through 2019. The number of reported deployments per tactical team during this time period ranged from 0 to over 5,000. Teams conducted different types of deployments, but some types were common among teams, such as: supporting operations of other law enforcement entities, such as other federal, state, and local law enforcement (16 of 25); providing protection details for high-profile individuals (15 of 25); responding to or providing security at civil disturbances, such as protests (13 of 25); and serving high-risk search and arrest warrants (11 of 25). Four teams reported that they had deployed in response to the Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and 16 teams reported deployments related to nationwide civil unrest and protests in May and June 2020. Tactical teams reported having various types of firearms, tactical equipment, and tactical vehicles in their inventories. Team members generally have a standard set of firearms (e.g., a pistol, a backup pistol, and a rifle), but some may also have specialized firearms (e.g., a shotgun designed to breach doors). Tactical teams also have a variety of tactical equipment, such as night vision devices to maintain surveillance of suspects or tactical robots that can go into locations to obtain audio and video information when team members cannot safely enter those locations. Tactical teams may also have tactical vehicles, such as manned aircraft (e.g., helicopters) and armored vehicles to patrol locations. The figure below identifies the number of tactical teams that reported having such items in their inventories. Number of Federal Tactical Teams That Reported Having Firearms, Tactical Equipment, and Tactical Vehicles in Their Inventories, as of January 2020 Appendix I of the report provides details on each of the 25 tactical teams, such as each team's mission; staffing; types and frequency of training; and number and types of deployments from fiscal years 2015 through 2019. This is a public version of a sensitive report issued in August 2020. Information deemed to be sensitive by the agencies in this review, such as the quantities of firearms, tactical equipment, and tactical vehicles in team inventories, has been omitted from this report. Many federal agencies employ law enforcement officers to carry out the agency's law enforcement mission and maintain the security of federal property, employees, and the public. Some of these agencies have specialized law enforcement teams—referred to as federal tactical teams in this report—whose members are selected, trained, equipped, and assigned to prevent and resolve critical incidents involving a public safety threat that their agency's traditional law enforcement may not otherwise have the capability to resolve. This report provides information on the (1) federal tactical teams and their characteristics; (2) training team members receive; (3) deployments of such teams from fiscal years 2015 through 2019; and (4) firearms, tactical equipment, and tactical vehicles in team inventories, as of January 2020. To identify federal tactical teams, GAO contacted executive branch agencies with at least 50 federal law enforcement officers. GAO administered a standardized questionnaire and data collection instrument to the identified teams to gather information on team missions, staffing, training, deployments, and inventories. GAO reviewed team documents, such as standard operating procedures, and interviewed agency officials. GAO collected descriptive information on reported deployments as of June 2020 in response to COVID-19 and nationwide civil unrest, which were ongoing during the review. GAO incorporated agency technical comments as appropriate. For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin at (202) 512-8777 or goodwing@gao.gov.
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  • Florida Man Charged with Federal Hate Crime
    In Crime News
    A Florida man was charged with federal hate crime in Ocala for setting fire to a church.
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  • Puerto Rico Electricity: FEMA and HUD Have Not Approved Long-Term Projects and Need to Implement Recommendations to Address Uncertainties and Enhance Resilience
    In U.S GAO News
    As of October 2020, 3 years since the hurricanes destroyed much of Puerto Rico's electricity grid, neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) nor the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had approved long-term grid recovery projects in Puerto Rico. In 2019, GAO made four recommendations to FEMA and HUD to address identified challenges in rebuilding the electricity grid in Puerto Rico. As of October 2020, FEMA had fully implemented one recommendation and partially implemented two others, while HUD had not implemented its recommendation. Specifically, FEMA established an interagency agreement with the Department of Energy (DOE) to clarify how the agencies would consult on recovery efforts. FEMA had taken actions to partially implement recommendations on improving coordination among federal and local agencies and providing information on industry standards. However, further steps are needed, including finalizing guidance on FEMA's process for approving funding for projects. Regarding HUD, it has not addressed GAO's recommendation to establish time frames and requirements for available funding. Damaged Power Lines in Puerto Rico in November 2017 after Hurricane Maria Until HUD and FEMA implement GAO's recommendations, uncertainty will linger about how and when federal funding for long-term grid recovery will proceed. In particular, it is uncertain how available funding sources will support measures to enhance grid resilience to hurricanes, such as smart grid technology. FEMA officials told GAO that additional funding sources could be used for resilience measures but that this would not be determined until specific projects are submitted to FEMA for approval. Moreover, although FEMA finalized a $10 billion cost estimate for grid repairs in September 2020, several steps remain before FEMA approves funding for projects—a process officials said they were drafting. HUD funding could supplement FEMA funding but, as discussed above, HUD has yet to establish conditions for using these funds and has not established time frames and a plan for issuing this information. According to HUD officials, they plan to publish requirements in the first quarter of fiscal year 2021, but this depends on other factors, such as input from other federal agencies. Further delays in publishing the conditions could contribute to delays in Puerto Rico's ability to initiate grid recovery projects. In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria damaged Puerto Rico's electricity grid, causing the longest blackout in U.S. history. It took roughly 11 months after the hurricanes for power to be restored to all of the customers with structures deemed safe for power restoration. Since electricity service has been restored, local entities have undertaken the longer-term task of more fully repairing and rebuilding the grid. GAO reported in 2019 on challenges hindering progress in rebuilding the grid and recommended that FEMA and HUD take actions to address these challenges. This report examines the status of efforts to support long-term grid recovery in Puerto Rico, including actions taken by FEMA and HUD to implement GAO's 2019 recommendations. For this report, GAO assessed agency actions; reviewed relevant reports, regulations, policies, and documents; and interviewed federal and local officials. GAO previously made three recommendations to FEMA and one to HUD to provide needed information and improve coordination to support grid recovery. Both agencies disagreed with GAO's characterization of their progress made addressing these prior recommendations. GAO continues to believe additional actions are needed to fully implement these recommendations. For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.
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