WASHINGTON (AP) - Faced with a #MeToo reckoning, the FBI says it is getting serious about sexual harassment in its ranks, starting a 24/7 tip line, doing more to help accusers and taking a tougher stand against agents found to have committed misconduct.
The changes follow Associated Press reporting last year that found a series of sexual assault and harassment allegations against senior officials who were allowed to quietly avoid discipline and retire or transfer even after the claims were substantiated.
FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate told the AP that the bureau is sending its strongest message ever that employees who are tempted to engage in sexual misconduct should be scared because if they do so, "we're coming for them."
"That's a strong approach, a forceful shift and we mean it. And it's coming from the top," Abbate said. "Individuals who engage in this type of misconduct don't belong in the FBI and they certainly should not have supervisory oversight of others. Period."
Among the changes FBI officials detailed to AP in a series of recent interviews was a round-the-clock tip line that provides a centralized mechanism to report abuse, though they would not say how many calls it has received. They also cited a working group of senior executives to review policies and procedures on harassment and victim support, and faster action to investigate allegations and fire or at least demote employees found to have engaged in misconduct to ensure they have no path to management.
To address chronic concerns that the FBI makes it difficult and intimidating for victims to come forward, the bureau is more broadly spreading the word in online and internal communications about where victimized employees can report allegations. And the FBI's Victim Services Division, which until recently had focused on aiding victims of federal crimes outside the bureau, has been extending the same level of support to employees who are victims of internal misconduct.
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Advocates of combating sexual abuse greeted the bureau's changes with skepticism, calling them long overdue — coming years after the advent of the #MeToo movement — and unlikely to affect lasting change.
"Everyone has gone through this, including the military, and the bureau has managed to skate," said Jane Turner, a former longtime FBI agent who in 1983 became the first woman named head of an FBI resident agency.
"Until the FBI charges these people and throws them in jail — or at least out of the FBI — and the message gets out that you can't do this, it won't stop," said Turner, who now works with the National Whistleblower Center. "It's going to take a total cultural shift."
FBI officials insist sexual misconduct allegations represent a narrow snapshot of the roughly 35,000-member workforce. But the cases that have been identified — by the AP and also by the Justice Department's internal watchdog — have exposed accountability gaps and startlingly bad behavior.
An AP investigation last year found that several senior FBI officials have avoided discipline — quietly transferring or retiring with full benefits — even after claims of sexual misconduct against them were substantiated.
That includes James Hendricks, the former top agent in Albany, New York, who was alleged to have sexually harassed eight female subordinates, including by asking one to have sex in a conference room. An assistant director also retired after he was accused of drunkenly groping a female colleague in a stairwell.
Those incidents come on top of a class-action lawsuit alleging systemic sexual harassment at the FBI's training academy in Quantico, Virginia.
And just last month, the Office of Inspector General released a new report to AP alleging an assistant special agent in charge groped a female colleague at an after-work event — a sexual assault captured on surveillance video.
"It was gross and creepy, he was touching the same parts of me repeatedly so not by accident," the woman texted a friend after the groping. "We put up with a lot so as not to rock the boat."
The heavily redacted report does not identify the agent but says investigators substantiated allegations he "engaged in unwanted physical sexual contact with three female FBI employees." The report says an unspecified agency declined to prosecute the official; it's unclear whether the FBI disciplined him.
Sexual misconduct also has drawn the attention of Congress and advocacy groups, which called for new whistleblower protections for rank-and-file FBI employees and for an outside entity to review the bureau's disciplinary cases.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said during a congressional hearing in April that this is a subject that "makes my blood boil."
"There is nothing more important than our people and how we treat each other," Wray said. "I have tried to make it crystal clear that we're going to have zero tolerance for that kind of activity at any level within the organization."
Mustian reported from New York.