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“They Allowed It”: A Justice Department Employee Said She Was Raped By A Senior Official. New Documents Show A Pattern Of Harassment At The Department.

Documents and interviews reveal new details about a pattern of sexual harassment by a senior Justice Department official, and what the department did — and did not do — in the year since he resigned.

Last updated on November 5, 2019, at 5:31 p.m. ET

Posted on November 5, 2019, at 1:01 p.m. ET

Adam Maida for BuzzFeed News

WASHINGTON — In December 2018, the Justice Department’s inspector general dropped a bombshell: Investigators had “substantiated” allegations that a senior DOJ official was a repeat sexual harasser.

The official, who had retired by that point, harassed five women under his chain of command, the inspector general announced. One woman reported that she was not only harassed, but also sexually assaulted. Another woman reported that she was pressured into having sex to get a promotion.

Few details were available at the time. The inspector general’s summary of the investigation was barely two pages. The official had worked in the Office of Justice Programs, an arm of the Justice Department that partners with federal, state, and local law enforcement, but he wasn’t identified. The summary didn’t specify what the women accused him of doing or the time period. Because the official had left the department, there wouldn’t be any internal disciplinary process. No criminal charges were filed.

Nearly 10 months later, BuzzFeed News obtained a copy of the inspector general’s full report. The 12-page document is redacted but includes a slew of new information, including detailed accounts from two of the women who described a pattern of escalating workplace harassment, as well as investigators’ findings that the former official “lacked credibility” and provided “conflicting testimony.”

The former official’s name is redacted in the inspector general’s report, but BuzzFeed News previously identified him as Edison Aponte, who had worked at DOJ since 1994, according to a Justice Department spokesperson. Aponte’s most recent title was associate deputy director in the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a section within the Office of Justice Programs that provides law enforcement training and grants — including, several sources noted, on issues related to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“It boggles the mind,” said Jon Adler, who took over as the head of the Bureau of Justice Assistance in late 2017. By then, the inspector general’s investigation was underway and Aponte had been placed on leave.

A source with firsthand knowledge of the investigation originally confirmed Aponte’s identity to BuzzFeed News in December. Reached by phone in December, Aponte said he could not confirm the inspector general’s report was about him and hung up.

Since then, four current and former Office of Justice Programs employees with firsthand knowledge of the investigation have confirmed that the official described in the inspector general’s report is Aponte. BuzzFeed News also reviewed documents that refer to events described in the report that name him. Aponte did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment in the past month.

One woman told the inspector general’s office that Aponte’s behavior began with inappropriate comments and unwanted touching — she said she put a mirror in her cubicle because he would come up behind her and rub her shoulders — and said he eventually raped her. Aponte denied the assault, but told investigators they had sex.

Another woman told investigators that it started with suggestive comments over drinks. Aponte once took her to a topless bar and asked her what sexual positions she liked, she said. She later felt pressured into a sexual relationship to secure a promotion; he knew she was struggling financially, she said. Aponte denied that relationship.

A third woman told investigators she engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with Aponte. The inspector general concluded that the relationship was still harassment because he was her supervisor; he should have notified his superior about the relationship and stepped aside as the women’s supervisor to avoid even the appearance of a “loss of impartiality,” but failed to do so, according to the report. Two other women reported “uncomfortable” encounters with him.

One of the women who reported being harassed — the one who said he pressured her to have sex in order to get a promotion — received a financial settlement from the Justice Department, a source with firsthand knowledge of the agreement told BuzzFeed News. The woman and her lawyer declined an interview request.

"They didn’t do anything when I went to them. ... They protected him and they allowed it."

The woman who reported that Aponte sexually harassed and raped her agreed to speak with BuzzFeed News on the condition that she only be identified by her initials, S.C. She said she felt ignored and abandoned by department officials after she first reported being harassed by him in 2012. She’s still angry about how the department handled her situation, and said the fact that Aponte is gone and the inspector general made a public finding of wrongdoing wasn’t a satisfying resolution.

What he did to those other people, management allowed to have happened — because they didn’t do anything when I went to them. They allowed that. They protected him and they allowed it,” she said.

The report doesn’t say what happened in the year after the investigation ended, but BuzzFeed News reviewed documents and interviewed sources inside the department that fill in the timeline. A senior human resources manager told the employees union in January that new “mandatory” sexual harassment training for all Office of Justice Programs employees would begin in the spring and that management would consult with the union on a new sexual harassment policy. However, three sources — a union official, a former senior official at OJP, and a current employee — told BuzzFeed News that none of that has happened to date.

A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.

Sexual harassment hasn’t just been a problem in one office at the Justice Department. In May 2017, the inspector general’s office alerted then–deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to “potential systemic issues” across DOJ. From 2012 to 2016, for instance, the inspector general released summaries of 19 substantiated complaints that included sexual misconduct and either involved high-level DOJ officials or were otherwise of “significant public interest.”

Those and other internal investigations highlighted problems with how sexual harassment was being tracked and punished, the inspector general told Rosenstein.

A year later, Rosenstein issued a memo directing every office to follow new guidelines for how to address sexual harassment. The memo outlined “guiding principles” for harassment policies and how to punish misconduct. All offices were given 90 days to come up with a system to track complaints. In a June letter to the US Commission on Civil Rights, which has been reviewing sexual harassment in the federal government, the Justice Department’s Gender Equality Network (DOJ GEN), an employee group, said it was “encouraged” by Rosenstein’s memo, but it wasn’t enough.

“DOJ GEN believes DOJ must do more to strengthen its sexual harassment and misconduct policies and to ensure that DOJ employees who experience sexual harassment or misconduct are not dismissed and ignored,” the group wrote.

Representatives of DOJ GEN declined to comment.

The inspector general’s office began its investigation into Aponte after receiving information in March 2017 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 2830, the union that represents Office of Justice Programs employees. Aponte was placed on administrative leave at that time, according to a department spokesperson. The report was finished in late October 2018, just over a month before the office publicly announced its summary of the investigation on Dec. 4, 2018.

Nearly 10 months after BuzzFeed News filed a public records request for the full report, the inspector general’s office produced it in late September. The office withheld certain information, citing privacy concerns, so the full extent of what investigators learned remains secret. The unredacted sections of the report don’t include dates, so there’s no definite timeline for when the harassment alleged by each of the women began.

The report is divided into sections detailing each woman’s account. The first woman provided a letter to investigators describing a sexual relationship with Aponte and indicated that he was her supervisor throughout that relationship. Aponte initially told the inspector general’s office he didn’t have a sexual relationship with the woman, but when confronted with information from her letter, he admitted it.

“[REDACTED] admitted to the OIG that he exercised bad judgment, especially in view of his position as an [REDACTED],” according to the report, an apparent reference to Aponte’s position as a senior manager. “[REDACTED] admitted that he should not have been involved with his female subordinates in any way that would appear that he was violating ethical rules. [REDACTED] admitted further that he had inappropriate relationships with subordinates, and that his communications with them were unprofessional.”

The second woman described in the inspector general’s report was S.C., who fell under Aponte’s chain of command in the Bureau of Justice Assistance. She told investigators and, later, BuzzFeed News that she tried to discourage sexual advances from Aponte, which included repeatedly asking her about her dating life and uninvited touching — she was the one who said she put up a mirror at her desk to deal with unwanted back rubs from Aponte.

S.C. also told investigators that Aponte once sexually assaulted her. She said that Aponte followed her home after they had gone as part of a group to an unspecified sports event, and asked to come inside to use the bathroom and for a tour. According to the report, she said that when she rejected his attempts to touch her, he became “forceful” and “sexually assaulted her by having sexual intercourse with her.”

Aponte initially denied any sexual relationship with S.C., but he later said he’d had sex with her while he was her supervisor, according to the report. He denied assaulting her.

The report noted that no criminal charges were filed against Aponte. S.C. told BuzzFeed News that she decided not to go to the police because she didn’t want to bring attention to herself or her family. Throughout the interview, S.C. also described being concerned about hurting Aponte’s family.

The inspector general’s description of the third woman’s account was brief, and the redactions make it hard to know what exactly happened. Still, the report appears to show that the incident involved Aponte showing a photo to other people and that it made her feel “very uncomfortable.”

The fourth woman told investigators that Aponte knew she was “struggling financially” and that she hoped for a promotion. She said she accepted his invitations for several months to get drinks outside of work — on one occasion, she said, he took her to a topless bar, and after asking her about what sexual positions she liked, she told him to “go to hell and left.” Aponte told investigators he didn’t remember the incident.

At a Christmas party some time later, the woman told investigators that Aponte talked to her about getting funding soon for new positions. When he said he wanted to take her to a bar, she “felt she had no other choice but to go to the bar with [REDACTED] because [REDACTED] promotion was near and she desperately wanted the promotion.” After they left the bar, the woman said Aponte drove to a dark area, parked, and kissed and groped her. She said she pushed him away.

“[REDACTED] stated that [REDACTED] started talking about the [REDACTED] promotions and at the end of the conversation [LONGER REDACTED SECTION],” the report stated. “[REDACTED] stated that she felt if she did not [REDACTED] with [REDACTED] then she would not receive her promotion [LONGER REDACTED SECTION].”

Aponte told the inspector general’s office that he didn’t interact with the woman at all that evening and also didn’t recall going out for drinks with her, taking her to a topless bar, or asking her about sexual positions.

Eventually, she said, she felt pressured into having sex with Aponte in order to get the promotion, and described two incidents — once after he drove her home during a snowstorm, and once after they had gotten drinks and he parked on a dead-end street — in the period leading up to her being considered for the new job. She said Aponte helped her prepare for the interview, including giving her interview questions in advance, and that she ultimately received the promotion.

Aponte denied having sex with her and denied helping her with the interview. He claimed he was being targeted because the woman’s request to work remotely had been denied. She reported to investigators that Aponte indicated he had personal information about her and where she lived, and she feared he was threatening her and might try to demand sex again in the future.

Marilyn Moses, president of the Office of Justice Programs employees union, told BuzzFeed News that the woman who reported being pressured into having sex with Aponte in exchange for a promotion received a monetary settlement from the department. Moses declined to specify the amount or share additional details. The woman and her lawyer declined an interview request.

The fifth and final woman’s account was brief. Most of the details were redacted in the report, but it involved an elevator encounter that made the woman feel “very uncomfortable.” Aponte told investigators he didn’t remember the incident.

The inspector general’s office concluded that the women who reported Aponte were “credible witnesses.” The information they provided was “detailed and specific,” according to the report, and there wasn’t evidence that they’d consulted with each other before giving investigators accounts of similar bad behavior by Aponte.

Investigators found that Aponte, on the other hand, “lacked credibility.”

“He initially denied any relationship with [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], but when confronted with evidence, admitted to having had sexual contact with both subordinates,” the inspector general’s office said in its report. “He also persistently minimized his misconduct and failed to demonstrate any recognition or appreciation for the seriousness of his actions as a senior manager.”

The report included information about S.C.’s efforts to report Aponte to management, but much of it is redacted. According to S.C.’s interview with BuzzFeed News and documents prepared by the employees union in 2013, she first told a senior Office of Justice Programs official in 2012 that Aponte sexually harassed her. She said she was asked if she wanted to make a formal complaint, but declined because she didn’t want to hurt Aponte’s family or her own; Moses said there was no requirement that employees make a formal complaint for management to take action. S.C. said she asked to be transferred to a different department so she wouldn’t have to see him, but management refused.

"I work at the Justice Department and I manage grants to prevent things like this."

“I just was like, so this is what happens? I work at the Justice Department and I manage grants to prevent things like this, I go to shelters, I meet women that deal with these types of things, and I’m dealing with this and I work for the United States government and I’ve done nothing wrong?” S.C. said.

S.C. told BuzzFeed News that in addition to unwanted touching, Aponte engaged in other harassing behavior, including commenting on her clothes, taking her phone and going through text messages and photos — she said she started hiding her phone — and questioning why she was wearing makeup, and if it was because she was going on a date. She said they had been friends, so when he made the occasional inappropriate comment early on, she didn’t think there was a problem.

“I’m the type of person that when I get uncomfortable, I tend to laugh it off and ... I don’t like to make other people feel uncomfortable. And that is my biggest downfall,” S.C. said. “Even if he said, ‘Oh, you look good in those pants,’ or whatever, I would be like, ‘Shut up, Ed,’ and I would laugh it off, you know, and just walk out of his office.”

S.C. told the inspector general’s office and BuzzFeed News that Aponte sexually assaulted her, but did not tell DOJ management. She declined to discuss the details of the assault with BuzzFeed News, saying it was too painful, but did confirm that it happened after a sporting event.

Other documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News show that senior officials at DOJ were put on notice about S.C.’s harassment claims against Aponte over several years. In 2013, when S.C. was facing disciplinary action for allegedly being absent from work without approval, the union sent a letter to management defending her and arguing she was facing retaliation for reporting Aponte the year before, as well as for using leave she was entitled to take under federal law. S.C. was fired in 2014.

In August 2015, Moses sent a letter to Loretta Lynch, who had just become the US attorney general, alerting her that an employee had reported “unwanted sexual advances” by Aponte. The letter didn’t name S.C., but the description of events matches the 2013 union letter. Moses told Lynch that management notified Aponte about the complaint and he denied it, and she questioned the lack of further investigation by officials.

Both the 2015 letter to Lynch and the union’s 2013 letter defending S.C. against disciplinary action named Aponte.

“In a world where we assess the cost of everything, granting [S.C.]’s request for a transfer was a no cost solution that would have satisfied her. It would have also bought time for management to thoroughly investigate her claim and potentially prevent further harassment of others,” Moses wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “Ultimately management's inaction over the years has exacted an enormous financial and emotional toll on his victims and all involved in this shameful situation.”

Graham Klotz / Getty Images

The Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

The inspector general’s involvement ended with the report and December announcement. The office doesn’t have the power to punish employees; it can only make findings and turn those over to the appropriate offices in the Justice Department.

According to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, an email from the head of the Office of Justice Programs at the time, Matt Dummermuth, went to all OJP staffers several hours after the inspector general’s summary came out in December. Dummermuth wrote that after “the supervisor” — he didn’t name Aponte — was told about the inspector general’s findings, the official "immediately” gave notice that he would step down.

That left “OJP with no ability to take disciplinary action for such misconduct,” Dummermuth wrote to the staff.

Aponte’s official last day at the Justice Department was Oct. 12, 2018, according to a department spokesperson.

In the December email, Dummermuth praised the women who shared information with the inspector general’s office, and he urged employees to report sexual harassment or “behavior that runs counter to a respectful workplace.”

“We must continue to be vigilant in preventing and reporting harassment and discrimination in our workplace, and continue to support any victims of misconduct,” Dummermuth wrote.

Jon Adler, who led the Bureau of Justice Assistance from December 2017 until mid-September of this year, told BuzzFeed News that he held a series of meetings to address the inspector general’s December 2018 announcement with employees, supervisors, and executive-level leaders. Adler said Aponte was already on leave pending the investigation by the time he took over the office, and he was not given details about what had happened before he arrived. He said he never had any contact with Aponte.

“On learning about this, it was important for me as director of BJA to communicate to every employee of BJA and the supervisors as well that this is unacceptable to me personally, the culture of denial is unacceptable, and for anyone who is operating under the illusion that the victims allegedly consented, that, too, is unacceptable,” Adler said.

Adler said he told supervisors at the time that they had to take immediate action and alert him if they became aware of any harassment, and he told employees to come to him directly with complaints if they didn’t feel comfortable going to their supervisors.

According to documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News, the employees union filed a grievance with management several weeks after the inspector general’s office announced its findings. In a memo dated Dec. 22, 2018, the union noted that it had pushed for action against the official (it did not name Aponte) for a “half decade” — a reference to S.C. and her original complaint more than five years prior that Aponte was sexually harassing her at work.

The union demanded that managers collaborate with the union on developing a harassment policy that would become part of employees’ collective bargaining agreement, as well as on a plan for harassment education and other “workplace culture change.”

Management responded a month later. In a memo dated Jan. 22, Jennifer McCarthy, the director of human resources, rejected the union’s grievance. The employees’ contract gave the union 20 days after an “act or occurrence” — or 20 days after the union should have been aware of an incident — to file a grievance. The December release of the inspector general’s two-page summary didn’t qualify as a “grievance” under the contract, McCarthy wrote.

McCarthy told the union, however, that management had already taken steps to address sexual harassment in response to Rosenstein’s April 2018 directive. Human resources was developing “mandatory training” for all Office of Justice Programs employees to begin in the spring of 2019 and would separately offer training for managers, also starting in the spring, she wrote. Finally, McCarthy said that her office was drafting a “Workplace Harassment Prevention policy” and that the union would be involved in that process.

Moses said that the union has not been asked to help draft any new policy. At a meeting with McCarthy earlier in October, Moses said, she learned that a draft existed and was under review. As for the rejection of the union’s grievance, Moses didn’t file a formal complaint against Aponte until after the December announcement from the inspector general’s office because that was the first time there was any official finding of wrongdoing.

“Up until then, it was one person’s word against the other. That’s why I held on and never filed,” she said.

A current Office of Justice Programs employee of more than 10 years who agreed to discuss internal matters on condition of anonymity said there had been no new sexual harassment training and no communication from management about the development of a new harassment policy. Staffers were required to do the standard annual training on workplace conduct, but it was general and not focused on sexual harassment, the employee said.

In September, the human resources office emailed all OJP staff to say it was working with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to offer new harassment-specific training in the future and attached a one-page flyer summarizing the Justice Department's policy.

"If you see something, say something," the flyer said. "Workplace harassment undermines the mission of the Department of Justice."

Adler’s name wasn’t on the communications between HR and the union earlier this year. He told BuzzFeed News that he wasn’t involved in those discussions. He also said he wasn’t included in meetings about the full inspector general report. He said he wasn’t aware of any new sexual harassment training in the past year, but added that training on its own wouldn’t be a good enough response.

“They have to apply the same passion and due diligence towards any internal victim as we do in administering grant funds for external victims,” he said. “I think it’s equally important that the seriousness of the issue be communicated from the leadership in addition to creating and implementing formal training.”

Aponte was placed on paid administrative leave in March 2017, after the employees union submitted the allegations against him to the inspector general's office, according to a DOJ official. Aponte remained on leave until July 2017, when he was detailed to another office within the Office of Justice Programs and worked remotely full-time until his retirement in October 2018.

Domingo Herraiz, who led the Bureau of Justice Assistance from 2003 to 2009, told BuzzFeed News that he thought that continuing to pay Aponte during the investigation was a mistake — he was in touch with employees in the office in 2018 and said it was widely known that Aponte was under investigation for sexual harassment and that there had been an assault allegation.

“I got a little angry about paying somebody for their time off in a situation like this,” Herraiz said. He said he wasn’t aware of any complaints about Aponte when he lead the division.

The current OJP employee told BuzzFeed News that they had known Aponte and that they were not “surprised” to learn about the complaints, since there were long-standing rumors around the office that Aponte was romantically involved with women who worked there.

“I don’t think anybody who worked with him thought he was sexually assaulting people. But nobody was surprised when the one-pager came out that said he had relations,” the employee said, referring to the inspector general’s December summary.

The current employee said they considered the situation with Aponte to be a “one-off” and not a sign of a more systemic problem within the office.

“I can’t think of anything else that they would do. Ed’s gone. They can’t prosecute him. They can’t go after his retirement,” the employee said. “I feel comfortable with the leadership that I have that if I had a problem I could go to them and it would be taken seriously.”

Moses told BuzzFeed News in an email that it wasn’t clear how widespread sexual harassment was in OJP or the Justice Department, but she noted that the inspector general’s office identified problems with reporting and tracking complaints across the department. Many women also do not report harassment, she said. The handling of S.C.’s complaint was “disgraceful and provides a window into the character of OJP leadership and the negative culture that they have created in this work place.”

Moses continued: “No one in OJP management had any interest in seeing [S.C.]’s complaint ever see the light of day. Terminating her all but assured that. In this rare incident, the truth prevailed and one individual, Aponte, faced a consequence — one deemed inadequate by most who know the facts.” ●

CORRECTION

S.C. said she reported being sexually harassed to a senior Office of Justice Programs official in 2012. A previous version of this story misstated the title of the official.

UPDATE

After publication of this story, a Justice Department spokesperson clarified that Aponte retired in October 2018, not December 2018, as the department initially said. This story has also been updated to include the fact that Aponte was placed on paid leave.

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