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Interim Forest Service chief named amid misconduct charges

Published: Thursday, March 08, 2018 @ 7:55 PM
Updated: Thursday, March 08, 2018 @ 7:55 PM

            Vicki Christiansen is shown in this 2012 photo when Christiansen served as interim regional forester for Region 1, based in Missoula, Mont. Christiansen was named interim replacement chief of the U.S. Forest Service Thursday, March 8, 2018, after Chief Tony Tooke's resignation on Wednesday evening, after Tooke acknowledged that his own behavior was under investigation as the agency deals with sexual harassment and abuse incidents. (John Crepeau/The Missoulian via AP)
Vicki Christiansen is shown in this 2012 photo when Christiansen served as interim regional forester for Region 1, based in Missoula, Mont. Christiansen was named interim replacement chief of the U.S. Forest Service Thursday, March 8, 2018, after Chief Tony Tooke's resignation on Wednesday evening, after Tooke acknowledged that his own behavior was under investigation as the agency deals with sexual harassment and abuse incidents. (John Crepeau/The Missoulian via AP)

President Donald Trump's administration moved quickly Thursday to install a female wildland firefighter to lead the U.S. Forest Service after the agency's former chief stepped down amid sexual misconduct allegations.

The appointment of Vickie Christiansen as interim chief came as lawmakers from both parties called for more aggressive efforts to combat a culture of harassment and retaliation within the Forest Service. The problems mirror recent misconduct within the nation's other major public lands agency, the Interior Department.

Christiansen has been with the Forest Service for seven years and became a deputy chief in 2016. Before joining the federal government she'd worked in forestry for 30 years at the state level, in Arizona and Washington.

She did not return an emailed message from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in an email to the Forest Service's approximately 35,000 employees that it had been "a difficult week," punctuated by Wednesday's abrupt retirement of Tony Tooke.

Tooke's departure came just days after PBS NewsHour reported he was under investigation following relationships with subordinates prior to his appointment last August.

The leadership changes at the agency were first reported by The Missoulian.

Abby Bolt, a Forest Service employee in California with a pending sexual discrimination complaint against her male supervisors, told The Associated Press that rumors of Tooke's relationships had started circulating within the agency as soon as he was appointed.

Bolt, a fire battalion chief now on leave, said she was hopeful Christiansen would bring some "fresh eyes" to the Forest Service's problems, but also wants Tooke held to account for any wrongdoing.

"If we just have somebody retire and step down, then we don't get to see that," Bolt said.

Preliminary results of a sexual harassment audit released Thursday by the Agriculture Department's inspector general said that almost half of employees interviewed had expressed distrust in the process of reporting complaints.

Perdue said more steps already were being taken to protect victims from retaliation. Those include using outside investigators for at least the next year to investigate sexual misconduct complaints, according an Agriculture Department inspector general's audit released Thursday.

Representatives of the Forest Service and its parent agency, the Department of Agriculture, did not answer repeated questions Thursday about whether the investigation into Tooke would continue. They also declined to answer if an outside investigator was handling the case.

Tooke said in a final note to employees that the agency deserved a leader with "moral authority" as it addresses reports of rampant misconduct and bullying of female employees. He did not directly deny the allegations against him but said he "cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported."

Lawmakers expressed outrage over the events and called for a hearing and investigation.

"I plan to use every tool to ensure all bad actors are held accountable," said Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who chairs the Senate agriculture subcommittee that oversees the Forest Service. He said he'll hold a hearing on sexual harassment in the agency.

Rep. Jackie Speier of California, a Democrat and leading voice in Congress against sex harassment, said a wide investigation was needed of into the Forest Service's "toxic culture" by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Forest Service has about 35,000 employees and manages more than 300,000 square miles (777,000 square kilometers) of forests and grasslands in 43 states and Puerto Rico.

Lawmakers in Congress held hearings on sex harassment at agencies in 2016. Senior officials have repeatedly vowed to address the problem, both during the administration of former President Barack Obama and more recently under President Donald Trump.

Tooke, a native of Alabama who joined the Forest Service at the age of 18, had worked in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Prior to becoming chief he served as regional forester for the southern U.S.

In announcing his appointment in August, Perdue cited Tooke's knowledge of forestry and his dedication to the "noble cause" of being a steward of public forests.

"Tony has been preparing for this role his whole life," Perdue said at the time. "His transition into leadership will be seamless."


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Portman: Firing Mueller would be ‘big mistake’

Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018 @ 7:33 PM

            Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said today that it “would be a big mistake” for President Donald Trump to fire Independent Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian officials trying to influence the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign had any ties to those officials.

“I’ve said all along it would be a mistake to do so,” Portman told reporters on a conference call. “I think you have to let Mueller do his work. The American people deserve an answer.”

RELATED: Portman calls on pension panel to shed partisanship

Portman’s comments follow those of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was quoted Tuesday as saying firing Mueller would “probably” be an impeachable offense. Graham had earlier said a Mueller firing would be “the beginning of the end” of the Trump presidency.

Portman said the intelligence community “has determined there was meddling in our election and we need to know more about it.”

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In Russia probe, Senate panel urges stronger election security

Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018 @ 9:22 AM

Issuing the first report in the review of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that a range of stepped up election security measures must be taken by local, state, and federal officials to address a series of gaps, which lawmakers in both parties say Moscow was obviously trying to exploit.

“It is clear the Russian government was looking for the vulnerabilities in our election system,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the chairman of the Intelligence panel, which has been working for over a year to uncoil what cyber attacks Moscow was engaging in during the 2016 campaign for President.

“Russia attempted to penetrate 21 states; we know they were successful in penetrating at least one voter database,” Burr added at a bipartisan news conference on Capitol Hill.

The panel issued a two page summary of what Senators say should be changed, ranging from giving grants to states to help secure their election systems, and pushing states to replaced outdated voting machines, and ensure that such vote counting equipment is not connected to the internet .

While Burr again stressed that there was “no evidence that any vote was changed,” he made clear that the bottom line of the investigation shows Russia was a bad actor in 2016.

“Russia was trying to undermine the confidence in our election system,” Burr added.

“The Russians were relentless in trying to meddle in the 2016 elections,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), as she said Senators in both parties agree that Moscow is trying to do the same thing in 2018 in the United States, and in other Western democracies as well.

“We may never know the full extent of the Russian malicious attacks,” Collins added.

One idea suggested by committee members is for states to go back to paper ballots in the future, to insure that overseas actors can’t hack their way into the voting process.

The panel will hold a hearing on Wednesday to go over these findings and recommendations related to election security, as Burr and other Senators stressed that their overall review of Russia’s 2016 election meddling continues.

The news conference demonstrated the difference between the investigations into Russian interference in the House and Senate, as Senators of both parties joined together, while over in the House, the two sides have been issuing dueling memos and reports.

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Red Ink Rising – National debt goes over $21 trillion

Published: Monday, March 19, 2018 @ 8:44 PM

A week after the feds announced the largest budget deficit in February in six years, the national debt edged over $21 trillion for the first time ever on Monday, as budget experts argue the U.S. is on a track that will likely again feature yearly deficits of $1 trillion, a level reached only during the Obama Administration.

“This is unsustainable,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI).

The $21 trillion debt milestone was hit as lawmakers in Congress were trying to place the finishing touches on a giant Omnibus funding bill which will increase deficits by well over $100 billion in 2018, because of extra spending approved for both domestic and defense accounts.

Even before that, budget watchdogs were warning of a new tide of red ink in the Trump Administration.

“Thanks to the recent budget-busting tax cuts and spending deal, the national debt is skyrocketing and on an unsustainable course,” said Maya MacGuineas, head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The February budget numbers had two main reasons why the monthly deficit jumped to $215 billion – up from $192 billion in 2017 – less revenue coming in to Uncle Sam, and more spending.

Tax revenues were $155 billion in February, down from $171 billion a year ago.

While deficits are heading back up, there’s no hint of action in the Congress on any plan to restrain spending, though only a handful GOP lawmakers publicly grumbled about the situation, as they waited to see what exactly was in the Omnibus.

But the Omnibus has become almost a normal spending tool for Congress, unable to get through the dozen yearly spending bills on time.

For the current 2018 Fiscal Year, lawmakers were supposed to have finished 12 funding measures by October 1 of last year – but that spending work has only been completed on time in four of the last 43 years – one reason there are calls to overhaul the system.

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Trump goes after Mueller – a new strategy on the Russia probe?

Published: Sunday, March 18, 2018 @ 6:49 PM

As President Donald Trump this weekend repeated some of his complaints about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and whether it involved anyone on his campaign, Mr. Trump did something unusual – sending out a pair of his tweets which included the name of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading that investigation.

It was the first time on Twitter that the President had more directly taken aim at Mueller, a former FBI Director who was named by the Trump Justice Department in 2017 to investigate the charge of Russian meddling in last year’s elections.

Were the weekend mentions of Mueller a new game plan from the President? Or just more of him venting frustration about the Russia investigation?

1. Is Trump now going to more publicly confront Mueller? Before this weekend, President Trump had mentioned the Special Counsel’s name in a tweet just one time, back in December. But this weekend, the President did it twice. “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime,” Mr. Trump said in a familiar refrain about the investigation. But his next tweet went further, directly accusing Mueller of putting together a biased investigation. In the process, the New York Times reported that the President shrugged off the advice of his legal team to not even mention Mueller’s name. Democrats in Congress said the Twitter volleys showed one thing – that the President is feeling pressure from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

2. Trump lawyer calls for end to Mueller probe. While the President condemned the Russia investigation, one of his lawyers, John Dowd, went a step further, saying it was time for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to bring the Mueller probe to a close. Asked about that on Fox News Sunday, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) basically told lawyer John Dowd to shut up, saying no matter what you think of the issue of collusion, Mueller’s task is to find out how Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. “To suggest that Mueller should shut down, and all he is looking at is collusion – if you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it,” Gowdy said bluntly. Gowdy was one of the few Republicans to address the issue on Sunday.

3. Most Republicans say little about Trump-Mueller. About 12 hours after the President’s Sunday morning tweets, one of his White House lawyers sent word that the President was not “considering or discussing the firing of Special Counsel, Robert Mueller.” But Democrats said that’s the way it looked to them, and a handful of Republicans joined in airing similar concerns. “It’s critical he be allowed to complete a thorough investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — unimpeded,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a statement. “Members of Congress need to be vocal in support of Special Counsel Mueller finishing his investigation,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). But there were few other Republicans making such statements.

4. Mueller remains silent on Russia investigation. While the President has expended a lot of energy in recent months raising questions about the Russia probe, Special Counsel Mueller has said nothing. He has not appeared in public to discuss the investigation. He has not released any statements on all the furor surrounding the investigation. He has not taken issue with any comments by the President. Instead, Mueller has let the guilty pleas and indictments do the talking for him, as several people who worked for the Trump Campaign have already plead guilty to lying to the FBI about their conversations related to Russia. For some Republicans, Mueller’s work has already gone on too long.

5. Few details on the firing of ex-FBI official Andrew McCabe. The weekend got off to a fast start at 10 pm on Friday night, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. No paperwork was released, so despite a lot of press reports on what exactly happened, we haven’t seen any part of an internal investigation that’s being done on the way top FBI brass handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and the Trump-Russia probe. While the President celebrated the firing of McCabe – “a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI – most GOP lawmakers stayed quiet. On Sunday, Trump accused both McCabe, and former FBI Director James Comey of fabricating evidence against him. “Fake memos,” he wrote. One Republican who raised a red flag about the firing of McCabe was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who expressed concern about a bureaucratic process involving federal workers that usually takes much longer to complete.

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