The vice president of the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute has been accused of sexual assault by a staff member. Other complaints about Eric Christensen’s behavior have been filed over the course of his long federal career, according to a recent news story in Government Executive, an independent news publication.
SIPI is a community college in Albuquerque that’s run by the U.S. Interior Department, and everyone who works there is a federal employee. Reporter Eric Katz broke the story. KUNM spoke with him about his investigation into assault and harassment at SIPI.
KATZ: There’s sort of a toxic culture there, a lot of misconduct and cover-ups and retaliations against employees who speak out against the work environment. And we sort of throughout the story, track how they went to their superiors, they were rebuffed, told not to report it, told that this was their fault or that they were making too big of a deal about it. And in many cases, they were retaliated against, stripped of their duties or sent to offices that were in the basement with no windows and the ceilings were falling down, or an old janitorial storage closet.
KUNM: In your story, you write that the VP of operations at SIPI, Eric Christensen, is accused of raping an employee. And you interviewed him, and he denies this. What happens next in that case?
KATZ: He’s denied that allegation. Some allegations he didn’t really deny. He just said, you know, that’s not that big of a deal, responding to the allegations of inappropriate comments or making employees feel uncomfortable. As we’ve reported and confirmed, he’s been on mandatory paid leave for over a year now, still collecting his salary, awaiting the outcome of various investigations into his behavior that arose after some of these employees spoke to each other, realized this was sort of an ongoing trend and reported their experiences to various investigators.
KUNM: You heard from several people that Christensen has a reputation for harassing women on campus, including students, and he still draws this six-figure salary from SIPI, even though he’s on leave. What has to happen still for him to lose his job?
KATZ: Well I guess it will depend on the outcome of the investigations. If those investigations come back and find that he’s guilty of these allegations or that he’s engaged in inappropriate behavior, then he would get moved further through the disciplinary process. That’s a slow process in the federal system. Federal employees are given due-process rights so that they aren’t just hired and fired on political whims.
KUNM: As you mention, he fully acknowledges that there have been complaints about him for years. How does it happen that you end up in these positions of authority, and people have a lot of problems with your behavior, but you still are able to keep rising in federal jobs?
KATZ: Part of it is creating a sort of complicit culture where people in leadership positions are not listening to their employees, not listening to the accusations that those employees are bringing forward. And then that discourages other employees who might feel victimized by these people to not speak out because they say, “Oh what’s the point.” They see people be retaliated against, and they don’t want to risk their own jobs.
Creating a culture where these allegations are taken seriously, they’re dealt with immediately, will help sort of reduce what you’re talking about from continuing to happen, where employees just continue to climb the ranks despite dealing with problematic behavior throughout their career.
KUNM: The culture of retaliation, it gets really serious. One of your sources says she felt like her life was threatened at one point. How do you think the federal government can get at this deeper question and problem of toxic culture in the workplace?
KATZ: When we reached out to the Interior Department for this story, they wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the case, but they said that they’re trying to provide more training for managers so that they know how to deal with and they are better equipped to deal with employees who bring these allegations to them.
Ryan Zinke, since he took over, commissioned a poll within [the Interior Department] to bring to light some of the problems with sexual harassment at the agency, and more than one-third came back and said that they had experienced sexual harassment in the last year. And almost all of those people said that they were still working with the person that had harassed them. That’s part of what they’re trying to do is identify the problems, see the extents of the problems so they can handle it better.