After Alleged Rape, Investigation Reveals Sexualized Culture At Washington State Agency
A former deputy director at Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is awaiting trial on charges he broke into the home of a co-worker and raped her while she slept.
The case has revealed a sexually-charged culture within the agency that one employee described as “a pattern of behavior that was not hidden.”
The alleged rape happened on the evening of December 17, 2014. Earlier that evening senior managers from the Fish and Wildlife department had gathered for their annual holiday party at an Italian restaurant in Olympia. After dinner a small group went out to the bars, including the victim and her alleged attacker.
The next morning the victim called police and reported that she had found signs of a break-in at her house and had intermittent memories of being sexually assaulted while she slept.
Soon the name of a possible suspect surfaced: Greg Schirato, the deputy assistant director of the Wildlife program at Fish and Wildlife. In April 2015, Schirato was charged with second-degree rape and first-degree burglary.
By then, Schirato was on paid leave while an outside law firm hired by Fish and Wildlife investigated dueling allegations of sexual harassment by Schirato and his alleged victim.
Public radio’s Northwest News Network, The News Tribune and The Olympian obtained that report through a public records request. The 29-page report described Schirato as an “influential member” of the executive management team who often talked about sexual topics at work and even tried to recruit co-workers to engage in sex.
Schirato described his life as “unorthodox” but told investigators he “maintained a ‘bright line’ and did not discuss sex or use sexualized language at work.”
Co-workers told a different story. One manager said Schirato regularly talked about “getting naked at parties.” Another employee said Schirato told her about meeting a couple and going up to their hotel room to watch them have sex.
Deputy Director Joe Stohr, the number two in the agency, recalled Schirato telling him at work about a birthday party in Las Vegas that involved women in a hot tub.
“It was just kind of a passing comment and I thought, ‘oh, that’s kind of odd,’ and just kind of kept going,” Stohr said in an interview.
In fact, the report shows a pattern of letting Schirato’s behavior slide. For instance, his workplace conversations had triggered two previous complaints. But in both instances they were not reported to senior managers or human resources and no action was taken against him.
“When you have managers and supervisors who don’t respond right away or at all, that inaction has the outcome of normalizing an environment that can become completely dysfunctional,” said Kristen Houser with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
She said inappropriate behavior in the workplace needs to be addressed immediately.
Women in the agency found different ways to deal with the sexualized environment. One said she put up with it because she didn’t want “make mountains out of molehills.” Another said she focused on improving her relationship with Schirato because he was part of her “work family.” A third described herself as a “consensual and active participant” in conversations about sex.
“When supervisors aren’t addressing these behaviors that means that your employees end up suffering in silence, or they can take another job, or they can join in,” Houser said. “And when people join in it becomes toxic.”
In addition to describing Schirato’s behavior, the report describes an after-hours group of “up and comers” at Fish and Wildlife who would go out for drinks a few times a year. The report says the group was known as the “T-dub group.”
The report says that name was short for “teamwork,” but Schirato told investigators it was also short for a vulgar term used to describe a woman’s private parts.
Schirato was ultimately fired, although he’s appealing to get his job back. His criminal defense attorney, Richard Woodrow of Olympia, said the culture at Fish and Wildlife was a factor in the alleged rape case.
“I think that set the background for the accusation to be made,” Woodrow said.
Woodrow said he’s confident Schirato, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, will be found not guilty at trial. He suggested Fish and Wildlife is culpable for not better policing the line between professional and personal lives.
“Not only did people cross that line, but other people saw it and nobody seemed to feel that that was an issue,” Woodrow said.
The investigation commissioned by Fish and Wildlife, at a cost of $47,629, concluded that there was no evidence upper level managers at Fish and Wildlife “condoned inappropriate workplace conduct.”
Fish and Wildlife hired the firm to determine whether Schirato and his alleged victim sexually harassed each other at work; it concluded that they did not.
Investigators determined they had previously had a consensual relationship, and that Schirato may have said things to his alleged victim at work that were inappropriate but, they determined, not unwelcome.
However, the alleged victim disputes that characterization of their relationship. She no longer works for Fish and Wildlife and declined to be interviewed for this story because of the pending criminal trial.
The investigators did find that Schirato sexually harassed a different, subordinate employee with comments like “I can’t believe how beautiful you are; you look so amazing.”
Surprisingly, near the end, the report mentions complaints colleagues had about how the alleged victim dressed at work and behavior they viewed as “flirtatious.”
Asked why the report examined the attire and conduct of an alleged rape victim, Stohr said the Fish and Wildlife investigation was focused on evaluating cross allegations of sexual harassment.
“There were counter accusations so the investigator, I think, was looking at both sides,” Stohr said. “‘He said, she said,’ and that was part of the evaluation.”
No one besides Schirato was fired or disciplined as a result of the report’s findings. Nor did the findings prompt the agency to undertake a broader effort to assess or change the workplace culture.
The director of the Fish and Wildlife, Jim Unsworth, did remind staff of the agency’s policies on maintaining a safe and respectful workplace. In the wake of the alleged rape, the agency also made counselors available and brought in the Thurston County Dispute Resolution Center to lead group discussions on creating a safe work environment.
Employees were also urged to come forward if they witness or experience harassment or inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
To this day, Stohr insists the sexualized culture involved a small group of employees and was not reflective of the agency at large.
“I can understand how people would think that if that’s the way they behave, that’s a widespread problem. That’s not my sense,” Stohr said.
This story was produced in collaboration with The News Tribune of Tacoma.