An environment of hostility, pressure, workplace harassment, persecution, intimidation and discrimination based on age and gender seems to reign in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Office of External Affairs in Puerto Rico, according to documented incidents since 2019 by at least 10 employees, most of them women.
The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) learned of the situation through two separate sources who identify Juan Andrés Muñoz Torres and Ricardo Agosto Castro, director and deputy director of External Affairs, respectively, as the ones allegedly responsible for these harassment situations that have led to the resignation of employees, transfer of duties, assignment of unrelated tasks, and the roadblock to getting the work done in FEMA.
The CPI learned that at least four of those employees submitted formal claims before FEMA’s Office of Equal Rights, under the “Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002” (known as the No Fear Act), the Equal Opportunity Employment protections (EEO) and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and the Freedom Policy Statement Against Discrimination, which covers FEMA.
“I have the obligation to report that my co-workers and I have been persecuted, pressured, harassed, degraded as professionals for being isolated and without access to information and for being fully assigned to irrelevant tasks and treated in an insulting way,” one of the complainants of that office told a superior at FEMA in a document to which the CPI had access.
However, almost two years after some of these complaints were submitted, the federal agency maintains both officials in their positions without penalizing them and has not offered a solution or protection to the people who have reported these behaviors, the two sources confirmed to the CPI, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The CPI sought to learn the status of these complaints, whether they were dismissed or there were sanctions, but neither Muñoz Torres nor Agosto Castro responded to a request for an interview or reaction. José Baquero Tirado, Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator at FEMA for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, did not respond either to a request from the CPI to comment on this matter. Meanwhile, Donald Caetano, FEMA director of External Affairs for Region 2 — to which the Puerto Rico office reports — said, “As a general practice, FEMA cannot confirm or deny the existence or the status of any personnel investigations.”
But one of the sources said this pattern has been denounced “for more than two years and they haven’t done anything.”
“It’s like when a woman is a victim of gender violence and has to continue living with her attacker, despite the bruises. They’re aggressors. But even though FEMA has all that information, it hasn’t done anything,” the source said.
The External Affairs office handles FEMA’s dealings with federal and local government agencies, municipalities, non profit organizations that have claimed recovery funds, requests for data from US Congressional leaders, and requests for information and interviews from the media and journalists.
One of the complaints that the CPI reviewed showed a pattern of discrimination based on age and gender when applying for higher-ranking positions within FEMA’s Office of External Affairs in Puerto Rico. In addition, situations of excessive oversight, hostility, isolation within the workplace, bullying and intimidation were reported.
The conditions counter the regulations that DHS officials and, by extension, FEMA officials must respect, established by the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which investigates and prosecutes cases related to prohibited practices by federal personnel. The OSC’s primary mission is to safeguard the principle of the merit system by protecting federal employees and job applicants to the federal government against practices prohibited under the Civil Service Reform Act. This office also protects employees from retaliation for reporting government corruption, under the Whistleblowers Protection Act.
The atmosphere of hostility attributed to Muñoz Torres and Agosto Castro was also exposed in another complaint sent to FEMA’s Office of Equal Rights, which the CPI reviewed. In the narrative of that complaint, the person making the allegations explains — with specific dates — several instances in which Muñoz Torres and Agosto Castro allegedly committed hostile acts and harassment.
According to the document, the person has been working in a career position at FEMA in Puerto Rico for more than two decades. She had been assigned to the Office of External Affairs, as part of the management strategy of the emergency and recovery process after Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017. Two years later, she asked to return to her career position due to the treatment she and other colleagues were going through. Muñoz Torres told her in a private meeting that he would not support that request and that he would not allow her to return to her previous position because she belonged to him, implying that he was their owner. The person let him know that she felt uncomfortable and asked him not to speak to her in that way.
According to the testimony, on another instance, Muñoz Torres asked her for another meeting, but this time in the presence of Agosto Castro and Samuel McKay, an observer from FEMA’s headquarters in Washington, DC, as he had perceived a negative attitude from her part in a meeting with the full team.
In the complaint, the person said that she felt intimidated by Muñoz Torres in that second meeting due to the exasperated and enraged tone with which he allegedly spoke to her.
One of the CPI sources said that as complaints escalated and groups were created within the office directed by Muñoz Torres, some employees began to receive approaches to officially complain about certain co-workers. “They wanted to build cases to get people out of their posts and bring in people they trust,” said the source.
Two complaints that the CPI reviewed confirmed that people witnessed a situation in which an employee was emotionally affected by such a request.
“She was very affected by the stress that this request caused her. She was crying and she showed us her hands, arms and necks that had a strong rash and scratch marks caused by scratching so hard,” one of the testimonies states.
Another source confirmed this scenario, adding that other employees also said they had received instructions to make noise to break their co-workers’ concentration “so that they botched their writing assignments.” Although they did not attribute those instructions to Muñoz Torres or Agosto Castro, the source said both officials have failed to maintain professional standards in this FEMA division in Puerto Rico.
One of the complaints concludes that Muñoz Torres does not know how to maintain professional and appropriate behavior at work or how to treat his colleagues with the minimum of respect. The complaint further notes that Muñoz Torres and Agosto Castro foster a work environment of constant hostility that is detrimental to the External Affairs operation, which permeates the rest of FEMA’s mission in Puerto Rico. The source adds that there must be something FEMA can do to prevent this situation.
Although the complaints reported to the CPI are against two specific officials, they take on a greater dimension given FEMA’s inaction. This, despite the fact that the agency has multiple divisions, regulations and places to complain — even anonymously — under the FEMA Anti-Harassment Program.
According to FEMA, the program’s values — promoted by DHS — are founded on compassion, fairness, integrity and respect. This postulate also maintains that FEMA promotes “a workplace free of discrimination, including the prohibition of harassment.”
“All FEMA personnel have a responsibility to behave and engage with our colleagues in an appropriate, ethical and professional manner,” according to FEMA’s anti-harassment guide.
The guide encourages FEMA employees to report any situation related to workplace and sexual harassment by filing an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint with the Office of Equal Rights (OER).
The OER has registered 992 complaints across the United States and its territories for situations that violate employment civil rights between 2012 and 2020, according to data published each quarter, with the highest number of complaints filed in 2018. FEMA’s mission in Puerto Rico to address the post-hurricane emergency began in 2017.
When looking at the statistics, only 16% of the complaints registered in the past nine years have received some type of warning or disciplinary action from FEMA.
OER Director Jo Linda Johnson said through a spokesperson, “FEMA takes every allegation of harassment or misconduct seriously and established an Office of Professional Responsibility to ensure that we investigate each allegation promptly, fairly and thoroughly.”
“To protect the privacy rights of those involved, we cannot comment on any specific matter that may be ongoing. If we do find evidence of harassment, however, we have a process in place to ensure the safety of our employees, including by relocating the subject of an investigation. If the evidence substantiates the misconduct, we hold the responsible employee accountable. And if a manager or supervisor fails to take prompt action to start an investigation or protect a staff member, we will hold them accountable too,” according to the written statement sent to the CPI.
However, the OER did not confirm why the number of disciplinary actions is so low when compared to the complaints that this division has registered between 2012 and 2020.
The agency cited a new Culture Improvement Action Plan released in December 2019 following a survey of all FEMA employees in the United States and its territories about their perceptions of civil rights and workplace harassment. It mentioned that “the results of the survey identified areas for improvement and will help continue to guide FEMA leadership decisions on programming and policy responses.”
The survey, aimed at examining the period between 2018 and 2019, found that 20% of FEMA employees who participated in the process reported experiencing some violation of their civil rights based on sex and 18.4% of employees reported having experienced some non-compliance based on race or ethnic origin. The report also suggests that during this period, women had a less positive experience in the workplace overall, compared to their male counterparts.
The OER was not available to explain if any Puerto Rico-based employee participated in this survey. Although the plan states that it seeks to “guarantee a prompt, fair and objective investigation of allegations of misconduct,” the complaints that the CPI reviewed date from 2019 and have not yet been addressed, according to the complainants.
DHS — FEMA’s umbrella agency — can sanction and go so far as to fire the employee if it proves misconduct due to harassment or a violation of its employees’ civil rights. Something that the sources that the CPI interviewed said has not happened in Puerto Rico.
For Palmira Ríos, an expert in Public Administration, these types of work situations create environments of instability within public agencies — local or federal — that could negatively affect the services offered to the public.
“When someone is facing a situation of harassment, in which they feel threatened and where their job may be at risk, offering service won’t be their priority, because they’re not in an emotional context that allows them, for example, to monitor and guarantee that everything is done in an ethical and correct way, because they’re already in a situation where they won’t be heard and if they dare to speak out, they may face consequences,” Ríos said.
These types of situations not only affect the two or three people who complain, but instead have a multiplying effect to the extent that they will hinder providing services, she said.
“Perhaps one person will report it and two or three more but it’s possible that there are many other people who know about what’s happening, but they keep quiet. When these environments are created, it’s very hard to foster a commitment to public service, to the people’s well-being and, if that agency handles emergency situations, the response is going to be slow,” she said.
The professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras Campus also noted that not all employees who are victims of harassment file a complaint, for fear of losing their job in a territory where the job offer is scarce.
“You have to remember that, in Puerto Rico’s case, there’s a very fragile labor market. Jobs with some degree of stability and some benefits have been undermined. Most public employees are in very unstable jobs. So certainly, there’s pressure — especially on women — to try to keep that job,” she said.
In addition to the complaints against Agosto Castro’s behavior in FEMA’s Office of External Affairs in Puerto Rico, there is another complaint against him over an alleged conflict of interest related to contracts that his private company, Empowerment Strategies, LLC, has with the Compañía para el Desarrollo Integral de la Península de Cantera, a public corporation, while already being a full-time employee at FEMA.
The complaint, which the CPI also had access to, was filed with the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on January 16 of this year.
“Mr. Ricardo J. Agosto Castro has been performing full time duties for the government of Puerto Rico equal to those performed for FEMA as Deputy Director of the Office of External Affairs. The Compañia para el Desarrollo Integral de la Peninsula de Cantera, whose creation promotes the development and well being of the Cantera neighborhood, has been able to receive Public Assistance funds under the Stafford Law as a government entity. These funds include disbursements for administrative matters among recovery projects, so there is the possibility that the company owned, managed and represented by Mr. Agosto has benefited from these funds,” according to the grievance that the CPI was able to review, and that the complaint system keeps anonymous.
According to the Puerto Rico Comptroller’s Office, as President of Empowerment Strategies, LLC, Agosto Castro signed four contracts with the Compañía para el Desarrollo Integral de la Península de Cantera between 2018 and 2020 for professional media and communication advisory services. The largest amount for $30,000 and was effective between September 2019 and June 2020. The contracts required between 30 and 40 hours per month of services from the company.
Francine Sánchez Marcano, former executive director of the Compañía para el Desarrollo Integral de la Península de Cantera, and who signed the contracts with Empowerment Strategies, LLC, insisted to the CPI that she was unaware that Agosto Castro was a FEMA employee while he was a contractor of the entity that she represented.
“I didn’t even know he had a full-time job; I’m finding out now,” she said.
Between 2018 and 2020, FEMA has approved and obligated funds for four damage claims submitted by the Compañía para el Desarrollo Integral de la Península de Cantera totaling $602,701. Of that amount, $42,973 corresponds to Category Z of the FEMA Public Assistance program aimed at payment of administrative costs.
Sánchez Marcano said she believes that there may be the perception of a possible conflict of interest but confirmed that they never worked with Agosto Castro on matters related to FEMA. She went on to say that the services that Empowerment Strategies, LLC offered were really provided by three other subcontractors of Agosto Castro’s firm: Angel Rivera, Linda Ceballos and David Méndez.
“Yes, it can be interpreted that there was a conflict, but there wasn’t. We never discussed FEMA issues with him. He [Agosto Castro] was not linked to our relationship with FEMA, but instead related to community projects. His work was based on coordinating interviews so that the community had opportunities to present their opinions,” said Sánchez Marcano, who headed the entity until December 2020.
According to Title 5 of the Supplemental Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Department of Homeland Security code, agency staff, and by extension FEMA personnel, who perform outside activities require prior authorization, which would be granted in a standard manner, unless there is a conflict with internal regulations or established prohibitions in Part 2635 of the code that establishes the standards of ethical conduct for federal employees in executive positions.
This waiver must be consulted and approved by the FEMA Deputy Ethics Officer to avoid any suggestion of conflict because the employee may use non-public information, abuse their position for personal gain, enter into financial conflicts or benefit their external operations.
To grant this waiver, the official must determine that the waiver is consistent with Title 5 of the DHS Code of Ethics and is not prohibited by law. The statute states that the official must certify that the exception is not a blank check to allow for any appearance of abuse of power or loss of impartiality and that it will not undermine the public’s confidence in the impartiality and objectivity of the FEMA employee.
The CPI asked Agosto Castro if he carried out the inquiry or got a waiver but he did not respond.
Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez is a corps member of Report for America