Eric Katz | February 8, 2018 | 0 Comments

Allegations of Rampant Sexual Harassment and Rape Roil Federally Run College

The campus of Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute is shown in 2012. The campus of Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute is shown in 2012. John Phelan/Wikimedia commons

In August 2016, ReGina Zuni found herself working in a windowless room on the campus of Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. The ceiling was cracked and falling. Loose wires hung along the walls. The administrative support assistant at the federally funded, Interior Department-run community college in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had been relocated to what was deemed the campus’ “Siberian office” shortly after filing a report to Interior’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office and its inspector general alleging that she had been raped by a top executive at the school.

SIPI is one of two post-secondary schools operated by Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education. The bureau states that its mission is to serve tribes with educational opportunities and “to manifest consideration of the whole person by taking into account the spiritual, mental, physical and cultural aspects of the individual within his or her family and tribal or village context.” But that lofty goal is at odds with the working environment many faculty and staff there say they have experienced. In interviews with Government Executive, multiple former and current employees described a history of sexual abuse and harassment on the federal campus, and a pattern of covering up claims, silencing victims and retaliating against those who dare to speak out.

The allegations at SIPI are reflective of a much broader problem at Interior. In December, the department released an internal survey that found 35 percent of department employees reported being the victims of harassment in the preceding 12 months, and more than 85 percent of those said they had to continue to work with the person who harassed them. Interior launched the probe after a series of congressional hearings and IG reports identified pervasive sexual misconduct at several outposts of the National Park Service.

Those figures compare to a 2016 survey recently released by the Merit Systems Protection Board that found 20 percent of female federal employees had experienced sexual harassment in the preceding two years. In 1994, the last time MSPB conducted such a survey, that figure was 44 percent.

‘I Felt Threatened for My Life’

Barbara Borgeson started working for the Bureau of Indian Education in 1981. She was the first female architect at the bureau and helped design the first LEED-certified building at Interior. In 2016, after a stint at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where she was responsible for the design and construction of K-12 schools on reservations throughout the country.

On April 1, 2016, Borgeson attended a meeting to discuss the five-year plan for her division. Some of the attendees participated via video teleconference. One of Borgeson’s supervisors in Washington, D.C., asked to share his screen with others at the meeting to display some Microsoft Excel documents. But when he did so, Borgeson told Government Executive, she and everyone else on the video teleconference could see—behind the documents—a partial view of a pornographic chat with lewd language and graphic sexual descriptions.

Barbara Borgeson (courtesy photo)
 

Borgeson reported the incident to BIA’s information technology team. Two months later, in June 2016, she was sent to SIPI on detail. She was removed from all the contracts on which she was serving as a technical representative to help implement a new software program. She worked out of an office near Zuni’s, which she described as a “janitor storage area.” Borgeson, who earned a six-figure salary as a General Schedule-14, Step 6 employee, was assigned routine administrative work.

Prior to her arrival at SIPI, she had heard warnings from employees she knew at the campus to watch out for Eric Christensen, SIPI’s vice president of college operations. His reputation, confirmed by her new coworkers upon her arrival, she said, was that he harassed students and attractive women on campus. Christensen denied these allegations in an interview with Government Executive. Borgeson said she never personally felt victimized by Christensen during her 120-day detail at SIPI, but more than once he pressured her to disparage colleagues who had accused him of wrongdoing.

She had another problem: On one occasion, while at BIA, two male coworkers, she said, “cornered” her in her office to question some of her work. This occurred just days before Walt Keays, the supervisor who shared the pornographic chat, was placed on unpaid suspension. Borgeson believed the coworkers were acting in response to her role in that punishment.

“I felt threatened for my life,” Borgeson said. She filed an equal employment opportunity complaint with BIA just days after the incident, which was reviewed by Government Executive. A friend of Borgeson’s, who used to work with her at the Army Corps of Engineers, said Borgeson reached out immediately after the incident and “she was shaken up,” the friend told Government Executive. In her complaint, Borgeson told her EEO office she felt like she needed to “get a restraining order in order to come to work.”

She is now back at BIA, stripped of her previous duties and no longer invited to any meetings. Keays, BIA’s deputy director, remains in his position. He told Government Executive the incident occurred on his day off, but he voluntarily logged onto the conference call because it concerned an important project. He noted that he was using his personal computer and the image in question was a text document that contained jokes with inappropriate language.

“Obviously I’m personally embarrassed by the whole thing,” Keays said. He said he was not aware of the complaint against him for several months and that Borgeson was reassigned for the “good business reason” that she was in between projects.

Dan Galvan, another assistant secretary at BIA, and Dale Keel, a BIA branch chief, the two employees who allegedly cornered Borgeson, also remain in their positions. Keel could not be reached for comment, while Galvan said he has “provided my feedback to the investigator” and could not get into more details as he believed the case was still open.

‘It Was Unbearable’

SIPI maintains a sprawling 165-acre campus in northern Albuquerque. Margaret Pictou, a former teacher at the college, often went running on the the grounds during lunch. On one such run, Christensen allegedly drove alongside her in his car and catcalled her, making sexually suggestive comments that she tried to tune out. The behavior continued, and she privately began to refer to him as “Creepersen,” she said.

On Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, Pictou wrapped up her teaching for the day around 2 p.m. She lingered behind in her classroom to prepare for the following week. But in the hallway, she saw Christenen, whose office was in another building across campus.

“What are you doing?” she asked him. “Are you lost?”

“No,” she recalls as his response. “I know exactly where I’m going.”

She felt uncomfortable, and went into her classroom. Christensen followed her in, she said, and closed the door behind him. He asked her to go as his date to a Valentine’s Day dinner the school was hosting. He stood between her and the door, and she felt intimidated.

“I felt if I said 'no' in a harsh way I would lose my job,” she said. “It really put me in an uncomfortable position. This was the VP of operations.” She defused the situation by “slithering out” of the room. She said he did not try to block her exit, but her classroom was isolated and she was frightened. In an interview with Government Executive, Christensen declined to get into specifics of Pictou’s accusations, only saying generally his alleged actions did not mean he “committed a violation of the law.”

She was shaking from the incident and went to a male colleague she trusted. He told Pictou to report it. She then described the encounter to her supervisor, Gloria Mariano, who agreed not to elevate the story up the chain due to Pictou’s fear that she would lose her job. Mariano did not respond to a request for comment. 

Later, during the course of a probe unrelated to Pictou’s case, investigators in Interior’s inspector general office reached out to her to ask about the incident and interviewed her off campus. When her supervisors found out, she said, they reduced her coursework without explanation.

“Once we start to know too much,” she said, “they start to bring in new people.”

After six years, Pictou decided she had to find a new job.

“I left,” she said. “I couldn’t tolerate it anymore. It was unbearable.”

‘I Stepped Up’

Before Pictou left SIPI, she met Zuni, who briefly filled in at Pictou’s department after two women there abruptly left the college. Zuni and Pictou got to talking and eventually exchanged stories. Zuni emotionally described a night when she claimed Christensen raped her, Pictou said, and began to cry. In his interview with Government Executive, Christensen vehemently denied the rape allegation, but acknowledged a history of complaints about his behavior during the course of his federal career.

For Zuni, the conversation with Pictou, who shared the story of her own encounter with Christensen, served as a kind of validation. But Zuni’s complicity in an earlier incident involving Christensen and another woman haunted her. Early in her tenure at SIPI, which began in February 2015, Christensen had allegedly asked Zuni to write false statements disparaging an employee in human resources, Merlynda Johnson, for performance issues related to her hiring responsibilities. Zuni had heard about allegations that Christensen had sexually harassed Johnson. Still, she agreed to write the letter. Christensen did not address the specifics of these allegations in his interview with Government Executive.

Johnson had filed a claim against Christensen, and according to multiple accounts, he sought to discredit her. He referred to her as “that bitch,” Zuni said, and pledged to “fucking fire her.”

Johnson “doesn’t know who she’s dealing with,” Zuni said Christensen told her.

At that point, Zuni got along well with Christensen and saw no reason not to trust him. Christensen asked her to be his “eyes and ears” when he was not around, she said.

Zuni has not forgiven herself for her failure to stand up for Johnson, she said, and the two remain on bad terms, according to both women. In an interview with Government Executive, Zuni began to sob when recalling that she agreed to write—at Christensen’s direction—the statement critical of Johnson. She was new to the job and felt pressured to do what her boss asked of her, Zuni explained.

“I just sat there and did nothing to help her,” Zuni said of her failure to stand up to Christensen. “And it came back to haunt me.”

For her part, Johnson declined to get into the specifics of her allegations against Christensen, because she signed a non-disclosure agreement under a settlement she reached with Interior before the Merit Systems Protection Board, the federal government’s internal, quasi-judicial arbiter of civil service laws. Johnson told Government Executive only that Christensen “physically assaulted” her. She added that Sherry Allison, the SIPI president, “verbally assaulted” her on multiple occasions when she complained about those experiences to Allison. (Allison did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Government Executive, but several individuals cited Allison for actions ranging from negligence to condemnation when they brought alleged harassment to her attention).

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute President Sherry Allison is shown in Albuquerque in 2013. (USDA file photo)
 

Johnson, who had been fired from SIPI, eventually brought 10 charges involving harassment and intimidation before MSPB. During her deposition, she recalled spending five hours talking to an Interior attorney, who she said repeatedly asked her the same questions with different phrasing to see if she would change her story. She did not, and Interior agreed to settle.

The settlement amounted to a “ding” on Interior, Johnson said. (Her attorney was “happy with the result,” the attorney told Government Executive, which she said revolved around a wrongful termination.) After the settlement, Johnson’s supervisor, the HR director who Johnson had told about her allegations abruptly retired, according to three individuals employed at SIPI at the time. The problems with Christensen were known BIE-wide around Albuquerque, Johnson said, an account that was verified by multiple people.

Johnson remains unemployed to this day and SIPI managers refuse to give her a positive recommendation.

Jameson Castillo, an employee at SIPI for several years, most recently as an IT specialist, was ready to testify on Johnson’s behalf had the case not settled. Castillo said he witnessed Christensen make sexual advances on Johnson. She was not the only female employee Christensen sexually harassed, Castillo told Government Executive, but the first to come forward. Castillo remembered, for example, his female supervisors coming back in tears from meetings with Christensen in which no other men were present. After Johnson filed claims against Christensen, Castillo recalled, Christensen came to the IT department and asked employees to submit accusations against Johnson in writing—just as he had requested of Zuni. Again, Christensen declined to discuss the specifics of the allegations against him.

“ ‘I want you to do this or you will get fired,’ ” Castillo recalled Christensen saying. Castillo refused and agreed to speak to both the IG and the EEO office on Johnson’s behalf. “I stepped up because it was wrong,” he said. 

Suddenly, the training Castillo was scheduled to receive (for which the bureau had already paid) was canceled. Castillo, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees, had worked at SIPI for six years as a term employee. Shortly after the incident, he applied for a permanent position, but his application was rejected and he was removed from SIPI’s rolls. The position instead went to a candidate with an associate’s degree.

“You had to go along,” Castillo said of the SIPI culture. “My way or the highway from the top down.”

A Friday Night Out

Zuni’s failure to stand up for Johnson still torments her, she said. She believes what happened to her afterward was a form of karma.

There were warnings she failed to heed and signs she failed to read, she said. In 2015, during her first few months at SIPI, Zuni heard allegations that Christensen harassed women, from Johnson as well as others. She was even warned about Christensen’s temperament from her predecessor before taking the job. She had heard profanity-laden diatribes against other co-workers (Zuni said, for example, that Christensen called Castillo a “fat fuck” after the IT specialist spoke to investigators, and swore Castillo would never get promoted). Still, she socialized with Christensen. The two discussed his divorce, which helped win Zuni’s sympathy. He even asked her to set him up on dates, which she reluctantly did, although the requests made her uneasy, she said.

One Friday night in September of that year, Zuni, Christensen and a couple of coworkers went to a restaurant attached to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for after-work drinks. They had a few cocktails and Zuni felt intoxicated. A female colleague offered to drive Zuni home, but Christensen intervened, saying he would drop her off after stopping at another bar. Zuni agreed, but at the next bar, she got sick and vomited.

The next morning, she said, she woke up in Christensen’s house, in his daughter’s bed. She was sore. She had been raped, she said. Christensen denies the allegation.

According to a police report that Zuni did not initiate until January 2017 that was provided to Government Executive by the Albuquerque Police Department, the female colleague confirmed the four coworkers had gone out for drinks after work that day. She saw Zuni and Christensen leave together but did not notice anything out of the ordinary, other than her colleagues being tipsy. Reached by phone, the woman said she “cannot and will not talk to the media.” The male colleague also confirmed to police they had gone out for drinks that day, but otherwise remembered nothing of note, according to the report.

The day after the alleged rape, Zuni did something she now regrets deeply: She decided not to report what happened. It’s not that she was a stranger to controversy. For example, in 2012, after being elected to her tribal council, Zuni clashed with other council members after disparaging colleagues and challenging contracting practices. The acrimony was so great she eventually was ousted from her position.

At the time of the 2015 alleged incident, Zuni feared that if she filed a report she would lose her job. She had seen what Christensen did to other accusers and those who helped them. Over time, however, the weight of what she had endured became too much to bear, she said. The culture of the office, in her view, declined rapidly. By the summer of 2016, she decided to file complaints with both the EEO office and the IG alleging rape and subsequent mistreatment. Just days after she spoke to an IG special agent for the first time, Zuni was sent to the Siberian office. Days after that, she received a letter from the dean of the school placing her on administrative leave.

“During the time you are placed on administrative leave, you are not to enter the school, or any other area relating to SIPI until you are instructed to return,” the letter directed. “Please note that this is not a disciplinary measure.”

Zuni decided she should find a new place to work. By January 2017, she had a job offer that would enable her to transfer to the Health and Human Services Department in Washington. After the Office of Personnel Management processed her paperwork and just days before she was set to move from Albuquerque, however, she received another letter from SIPI. It required her, for the first time since being sent home the previous August, to report to work or risk being fired. Zuni said she did not want to risk having a break in federal service, and declined the HHS job.

After just a few days back in the office, Zuni reached an agreement with SIPI management to take indefinite paid leave to work on her EEO complaints. Every few days, she must submit a new request for the time off. She has been assigned to an array of new supervisors. A year later, she remains on the SIPI payroll, awaiting further action.

‘There’s No Story Here’

Eric Christensen joined SIPI in 2013 after spending a decade at the Indian Health Service. In September 2016, he was placed on administrative leave, a month after Zuni was put on leave. He has remained in that status for 16 months. He too remains on the SIPI payroll, continuing to draw a six-figure salary ($109,800 in 2016), awaiting the results of the investigations involving him.

Reached by phone at his home, Christensen told Government Executive he did not rape Zuni. Christensen said he was not sure why so many individuals had spoken out against him.

“It’s hard to say exactly,” he said. “People do things for various reasons.” He also downplayed the other charges against him: “There’s a big difference between verbal abuse and rape.”

He said he was confident investigators will clear him of any wrongdoing. They know Zuni is “a liar,” he said, and every accusation against him is “either mundane, or lies.” According to the police report, Christensen denied ever having a sexual encounter with Zuni. “She’s fat, she’s ugly, she’s old,” he told the police over the phone, while informing them he would refuse to come in for an interview.

“All this other stuff about poor behavior or whatever, those aren’t even in the same ballpark,” Christensen told Government Executive. He said he has spent much of his career in a supervisory role, and has faced such complaints “many times.”

“That doesn’t mean I’ve committed a violation of the law,” he said. “There’s no story here.”   

Promising Reform

Nedra Darling, an Interior Department spokeswoman, would not comment on “personnel-related issues” or “active litigation” when asked about the allegations against Christensen and the claims of a toxic culture at SIPI.

“However, the Department of the Interior is committed to ending harassment and takes allegations of sexual harassment seriously,” Darling said. She added that employees have a number of options for reporting harassment or retaliation and those allegations are “investigated thoroughly.” Employees facing those allegations, she explained, are entitled to due process rights required by civil service laws.

Interior said it has changed performance management standards to ensure supervisors hold employees accountable for engaging in harassment, released new anti-harassment policies and trained more staff to investigate allegations of misconduct. In December, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released a video to department staff saying he had fired four “predators who other administrations were too afraid to remove.”  

“From Day 1, I made it clear that I have zero tolerance for any type of workplace harassment, and I have directed leadership across the entire department to move rapidly to improve accountability and transparency with regard to this absolutely intolerable behavior,” Zinke said. “When I say ‘zero tolerance’ I mean that these people will be held accountable for their abhorrent actions.”

Justice

Zuni said she is happy to still be in Albuquerque, fighting her case. According to the Albuquerque police, the report she filed against Christensen last year alleging forced rape is currently “considered closed pending further leads,” because neither party was able to provide evidence to advance their version of events.

In addition to the guilt she still feels regarding her own actions, she holds a grudge against those who swept previous allegations under the rug.

“Had they taken the proper steps,” she said, “he never would have got to me. I would have never gone through this. They are complicit in this.”

Now, she said she has just one thing on her mind: “I will get justice.”

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