Sexual Predator Report Sealed to Protect His Privacy
Washington, DC — A review of how the U.S. Forest Service handled a series of sexual attacks by a law enforcement officer is being withheld to protect his privacy rights even after he was criminally convicted of the attacks, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The review was sparked by allegations from victims of a lax investigation, their re-victimization by agency officials and anti-female bias within the law enforcement program.
The Office of Inspector General (IG) for the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a review of actions by Joe Hardy, a now-former Forest Service law enforcement officer accused of sexually assaulting three female trainees at a campfire gathering. In 2010, Hardy was found guilty of three counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of assault and battery following a jury trial in a Michigan circuit court. His convictions were later upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals.
In November 2011, PEER submitted a request for the final IG report under the Freedom of Information Act but the request was denied to protect Hardy’s privacy. PEER appealed the denial. In a May 18, 2012 letter, Phyllis Fong, the Inspector General, affirmed the denial, writing “Furthermore, I have determined that the public interest served by disclosing the requested records…does not outweigh the privacy interests.” She also refused PEER’s request to remove all names from the report, saying that such information was “inextricably intertwined” and redacting it would render the remaining report an “essentially meaningless set of words and phrases.” Overturning her decision requires a lawsuit.
PEER had requested the report at the request of Forest Service staff interviewed by the IG. They raised a number of concerns that extend far beyond the confines of this case, including:
- The lack of agency support for the female assault victims who felt “re-victimized” by official indifference to their needs and perspectives;
- A chummy “old boy” law enforcement program that sympathized more with Hardy than with the female trainees; and
- Hardy’s criminal appeal involved his earlier alleged participation in a gang rape, something that was not picked up in his law enforcement background check.
“Both the victims and the public have the right to learn whether a government agency is taking the safety of its female employees seriously,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed the complaint today with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “We believe that not only has the Inspector General misunderstood the law but has made a decision devoid of common sense.”
The Forest Service law enforcement program in the Eastern states, where these incidents occurred, has been riven by crippling personnel and leadership problems. Ironically, the Forest Service itself released a wide ranging report last year containing references to the Hardy case.
“Presumably, the Office of Inspector General investigated in order to identify lessons to be learned to better protect female workers, not to shield the perpetrator,” Douglass added, noting there will be no lessons learned if the report never sees the light of day. “By Ms. Fong’s standard, no report of misconduct could ever be published, which defeats the purpose of having an IG.”