The State Department has sharply criticized and largely rejected a recent inspector general’s investigation that found “substantial evidence” two Trump administration political appointees had failed to properly report behavior amounting to “workplace violence.”
The department’s response to the probe, included in papers obtained by POLITICO, is fresh evidence of the lingering tensions between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the watchdog office in the days since he engineered the firing of Inspector General Steve Linick in mid-May.
The investigation into the workplace violence issue also involves the leaders of the Office of the Chief of Protocol – a State Department division that faces scrutiny in a separate, ongoing inspector general’s office probe into Pompeo and his wife.
On Monday, Democrats subpoenaed four Pompeo aides to testify in a congressional investigation into why the secretary had pushed President Donald Trump to oust Linick, who was notified of his firing on May 15.
POLITICO obtained both the inspector general’s report into the workplace violence allegations and the State Department’s response.
The initial report, dated May 6, is from Linick to Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun and is marked “sensitive but unclassified.”
Citing multiple staffers and several incidents, it asserts that two senior officials in the protocol office, Cam Henderson and Mary-Kate Fisher, saw or learned of allegedly abusive behavior by Sean Lawler, the former chief of protocol, but failed to report it to human resources officials.
The protocol office plays a major role in arranging diplomatic events involving the White House and the State Department. Its many responsibilities include assuring proper etiquette is observed and handling gift exchanges.
Lawler was ousted last summer amid several allegations of threatening behavior. He has been accused of throwing papers and binders, screaming at employees, and in at least one case, of physically assaulting a staffer, according to the inspector general’s report. Employees — most, if not all, career officials hailing from the Civil Service and Foreign Service — also alleged that Lawler temporarily carried around a horse whip, further unnerving them.
Lawler has previously called the accusations against him “exaggerated and/or false.”
In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for the State Department said it is “outrageous” that the report was “leaked to the press.” The spokesperson, whose statement was provided on condition of anonymity, raised many of the same concerns mentioned in the department’s formal response to the investigation.
“The department has always had an appropriate and robust relationship with the IG’s office, but we care about getting it right and in this case, the IG’s office gravely and intentionally missed the mark,” the spokesperson added.
The inspector general’s office declined to comment for this story.
Henderson is now the chief of protocol, succeeding Lawler, and Fisher is one of her deputies. Both Henderson and Fisher are political appointees of the Trump administration, as was Lawler.
In one example listed in the May 6 report, Fisher is said to have failed to intervene when, in Fisher’s presence, Lawler “began pounding his fists against an administrative employee’s desk and shouting profanities at her.”
In another case, an upset Lawler is alleged to have torn up some paper and thrown it at an employee in a lobby. In another, Fisher acknowledged that Lawler had caused her to cry after she “had failed him” in getting some information.
According to the inspector general’s report, both women acknowledged being aware of some of Lawler’s questionable behavior. Henderson, for one, is said to have removed the whip from Lawler’s office. But they also suggested to investigators that they did not view his behavior as intentionally threatening or worrisome to the level that they needed to report it to other authorities.
The inspector general’s office referred the matter to the State Department’s leadership for “any action deemed appropriate,” without specifying a recommended course.
Its report cites “numerous” employees as well as other probes by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Office of Civil Rights in laying out its findings. But it also states that “all employees” interviewed “expressed a fear of retaliation” for speaking out. To protect their confidentiality, the report notes that it “discusses its findings in general terms.”
A top Pompeo deputy zeroed in on the resulting lack of specificity in his response, issued on behalf of the department’s 7th-floor leadership.
The response, dated June 30 and marked “unclassified,” is from Ulrich Brechbuhl, the State Department counselor and Pompeo’s de facto chief of staff. It is addressed to Stephen Akard, the acting inspector general, and his deputy Diana Shaw, and it is largely defensive of Henderson and Fisher while questioning the motives of the investigators.
Brechbuhl, a former West Point classmate and business partner of Pompeo’s, insists that the State Department leadership acted swiftly to suspend Lawler in June 2019 once it became aware of complaints about his behavior. He accuses the inspector general’s report of unfairly implying that the department acted slowly.
Brechbuhl also includes a lengthy response from Henderson and Fisher telling their side of the story. Brechbuhl describes Henderson and Fisher’s response as “stunning” in its facts and detail, and “what would instead be expected of an IG memo resulting from an eight-month-long investigation.”
In their response, Henderson and Fisher take issue with the inspector general’s description of events. For example, both say they do not recall an incident in which Lawler banged on an administrative employee’s desk while shouting profanities.
Referring to the whip as a “riding crop,” they say Lawler received it as a gift from a delegation from Kazakhstan. Henderson says she believed that Lawler thought it was “cool” and was “showing it off” but never meant it to be seen as intimidating.
Henderson complains that the inspector general’s report didn’t mention that explanation from her. But she also acknowledges removing the item from Lawler’s office and telling him not to carry it “on his person for any reason” after receiving a verbal complaint from a staff member.
The pair question whether some of Lawler’s actions rose to the level of “threatening” and “violence” as defined by State Department rules, and whether, as a result, they needed to approach human resources officials to report the incidents.
They note that “violence” can include destroying property but downplay what they said they knew of Lawler’s actions. They describe the incident in which Lawler is said to have ripped up paper and thrown it an employee as a “weak example” of property damage.
The two women also say that in certain instances of questionable behavior, Fisher would report what she’d heard to Henderson, or Henderson would talk to Lawler directly. In some cases, they said, Lawler would issue an apology. The point, they argued, was that they saw no need to “escalate the situation.”
Henderson and Fisher also say they’ve made moves such as commissioning a workplace climate survey, launching a weekly newsletter and hosting a training course to help improve comfort and communication in the office.
In his portion of the response, Brechbuhl accuses the inspector general’s office of a “systemic pattern of selective inclusion and exclusion of facts.”
He claims, for instance, that the allegation that Lawler had physically assaulted a staffer, which was investigated by Diplomatic Security, was “apparently” unsubstantiated because “the charges were subsequently dropped.” He chides the inspector general’s office for not mentioning that. But it’s not known for certain exactly what Diplomatic Security found nor why the charges were dropped.
He also asserts, for example, that the inspector general relied on a single source – a junior employee – in raising some of its concerns. But, in various parts of their report, the investigators made it clear they heard those allegations from “several” and “numerous” employees.
Brechbuhl’s memo ends on a somewhat contradictory note. He states that while Henderson and Fisher “could have, and perhaps should have, been more aggressive in reporting some of Mr. Lawler’s behavior, they did not accept it as appropriate in any way shape or form.”
It says the two have been counseled and “charted a different course.”
“Leadership considers this matter closed,” Brechbuhl concludes. “We expect future reports from the OIG to be objective, comprehensive, professional and appropriate.”
Henderson and Fisher are well-connected in Republican political circles. Both worked as aides to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose decision to support Trump proved a critical moment during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Pompeo, one of Trump’s most trusted aides, is believed to be eyeing a future presidential run. His move to oust Linick has drawn more scrutiny to his actions as well as those of his wife, Susan, at the State Department.
The inspector general’s office, starting under Linick, has been looking into allegations that the Pompeos improperly used State Department staff and resources for personal reasons, including running errands.
Mike Pompeo has said he was unaware of the investigation into him and his wife when pushing President Donald Trump to fire Linick. The secretary has alleged that Linick was a “bad actor” who was unsupportive of the State Department’s mission; Linick has said he was shocked to be fired.
The protocol office has come up in the inspector general’s probe of the Pompeos.
Susan Pompeo has worked with the protocol office on a number of fronts, interacting with Henderson and Fisher along the way, according to emails and other documents previously obtained by POLITICO.
Susan Pompeo and the protocol office have worked together to arrange a series of “Madison Dinners” in which the Pompeos mingled with high-profile figures from Washington and beyond. Some State Department officials have questioned whether the dinners were a correct use of taxpayer dollars or designed to build the Pompeos’ political network ahead of potential future runs for office.
But the State Department’s legal advisers signed off on the dinners. The department also has defended them, saying “Foreign policy-focused social gatherings precisely like these are in the finest tradition of diplomatic and American hospitality and grace.” (Robert Allbritton, the publisher and owner of POLITICO, attended a Madison Dinner.)
The inspector general’s investigation into the Pompeos continues despite Linick’s ouster. Akard, his successor as the head of the inspector general’s office, recused himself from investigations involving the Pompeos after intense pressure from Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Leading Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, have added to the pressure on Pompeo by launching their own probe into why Linick was fired. Linick was one of several inspectors general Trump has sidelined in recent months, which Democrats suspect is an effort to escape independent oversight and accountability.