U.S. Justice Department needs clearer policy on office relationships, says watchdog

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department lacks a uniform policy to address office romances between supervisors and their employees, a problem that creates a power imbalance and raises questions about whether such relationships are consensual, the department’s internal watchdog has found.

In a stern memo released on Wednesday, Inspector General Michael Horowitz said his office had noticed an increase in the number of complaints it had received concerning “inappropriate relationships between high-level supervisors and subordinates” at the department but that the policies on such relationships vary wildly.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, for instance, has no policy on romantic relationships between bosses and their employees, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation requires both parties to disclose them to the bureau and bans supervisors from being involved in a romance that could harm the professional relationship or hurt the FBI’s mission.

“The imbalance of power between supervisors and subordinates has in many cases raised questions about the consensual nature of such romantic or intimate relationships,” Horowitz wrote.

He added that when his office is tasked with investigating potentially inappropriate relationships, he will decline to identify any subordinates by name or make any misconduct findings against them if they fail to disclose their relationship with a supervisor.

His memo cited a number of prior investigations involving romantic relationships, without naming any individuals involved.

One of the more high profile relationships at the Justice Department to hit the news in recent years was an inter-office romance between former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI attorney Lisa Page, who both got into hot water for sending text messages that were critical of President Donald Trump while they were working on cases related to Trump’s campaign and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

Strzok is suing the department for wrongful termination, while Page is accusing the department in a lawsuit of inappropriately disclosing their private texts to the media and violating her privacy.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department had informed the Office of Inspector General that it was convening a working group to study the issue and to develop Department-wide guidance.

“We fully expect that future guidance will address the concerns raised by the OIG. We will be providing the OIG with the conclusions of our review once complete,” Hornbuckle said.

Horowitz’s memo on the lack of an office romance policy linked to a prior October 2019 investigative report by his office into an FBI senior official who failed to report a romantic relationship with a subordinate and later participated in a decision to temporarily promote the subordinate.

The report did not name the people involved from the FBI.

Other investigations he cited involved relationships at the Bureau of Prisons or those involving Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

In November of last year, Buzzfeed published a story with previously unreported details concerning the inspector general’s investigation into a senior department official accused of sexually harassing five people under his chain of command, including one woman who alleged he had raped her.

Horowitz’s investigation ultimately “substantiated” the allegations that the now-retired official was a repeat sexual harasser.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Howard Goller)