Special Agent SherryAnn Quindley said she laughed when her new ATF boss told her, “I’m going to break you.”
Quindley, who had tackled bombings, shootings, drug trafficking, and organized crime, thought it must be a joke. Her friends and co-workers at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives knew her as a fighter, a survivor who beat breast cancer.
Yet, she felt powerless against this new supervisor, who, according to federal documents, sexually harassed or discriminated against her and other women at the agency.
Even worse, Quindley said, was the feeling of betrayal when ATF leadership not only protected him but retaliated against her after she filed internal complaints in 2013 that led to an investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. It was a pattern that continued, Quindley said, after she won her case against the ATF.
Quindley, a 51-year-old Cape Cod resident who counseled agents and police officers after the Boston Marathon bombings, said it can be particularly humiliating to be sexually harassed in law enforcement.
“You feel like you can protect others and then all of a sudden it comes down to: You can’t even protect yourself,” she said. “And that’s devastating.”
Quindley’s case, which led to a cascading series of investigations, internal complaints, and a congressional inquiry, provides a rare window into how a federal law enforcement agency handles complaints of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. It also mirrors the harassment cases that occur nationwide within the very agencies that are supposed to protect the rest of society, from small-town police departments to the Department of Justice.
The ATF declined to comment on any specific cases, but Deputy Director Tom Brandon, who has led the agency since April 2015, released a statement saying the agency strictly adheres to federal laws, regulations, and Justice Department policies prohibiting sexual harassment.
“As the senior executive of ATF, I am unequivocally committed to zero tolerance of sexual harassment and, as an individual, my deeply held belief is that such conduct is unacceptable in all forms and morally reprehensible,” Brandon said. “When any ATF employee learns of allegations of sexual harassment, I expect those allegations to be reported, and demand that they be thoroughly investigated.”
But that was not Quindley’s experience. After the Justice Department found in 2015 that one supervisor harassed her and another supervisor condoned it, both men received plum assignments. And she suddenly found herself subjected to an investigation of her credit card transactions and was targeted online with sexually explicit images falsely labeled as her.
“I don’t think I’ve endured a more difficult thing in my life,” said Quindley, in her first public comments about her ordeal. “When people come forward, they become the target.”
Quindley joined the ATF 28 years ago as an agent in the Boston office. She served on the Oklahoma City bombing task force, worked on a tactical operations and negotiation team, and spent four years detailed to the FBI Academy working with its critical incident response group.
For more than 20 years, Quindley said, she never had a problem with the men she worked with. The majority of the ATF’s 2,575 agents are male; only 356 are women. But in 2012, Quindley, who ran the national organized crime drug enforcement task force program from the ATF’s headquarters in Washington, came under the supervision of Billy Wright, deputy chief of the Special Operations Division.
Wright, according to Quindley, said he would break her, and he proceeded to try, based on allegations detailed in federal documents.
In complaints filed in 2013 — with ATF’s internal affairs division and its equal employment opportunity office — Quindley said Wright excluded her from meetings about the program she ran, humiliated and demeaned her in front of co-workers, and applied different rules to her than her male counterparts.
Neither Wright nor his attorney responded to requests for comment about allegations raised by Quindley and other women, including one who, according to a civil suit, accused him of sexual assault.
“The problem starts with her working for someone who really was a serial harasser of women,” said Quindley’s attorney, David Wachtel of Washington. “He was someone who had done this over and over in the agency and the agency hadn’t taken action against him.”
The internal affairs investigation into Quindley’s complaint was initially assigned to ATF agent Lisa Kincaid, who alleges in a federal suit pending in Washington that she was retaliated against after she turned in a 272-page preliminary report in 2014, corroborating allegations of misconduct by Wright and his supervisor, Charlie Smith, chief of the Special Operations Division.
Beyond verifying Quindley’s claims, Kincaid’s investigation “documented credible evidence that Mr. Wright, among other matters: shoved his hand up one woman’s skirt; discussed oral sex in front of women; made unwanted advances toward women; yelled at, belittled, and berated women,” according to the suit.
An ATF attorney, who spoke to the Globe on the condition she not be named, confirmed that she told Kincaid that Wright slid his hand up her skirt when she was seated next to him at dinner while attending a conference in Chicago in 2011. She said she didn’t report it to ATF at the time because she believed she would face repercussions and no action would be taken against him.
“Behind the scenes, boys are protected for their bad behavior,” she said.
In her preliminary report to supervisors, Kincaid said in her suit, she also found that Smith failed to take action against Wright in response to complaints by women.
But, according to Kincaid’s suit, top-ranking ATF officials, including Brandon, would not open an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations or refer her findings to the inspector general’s office for a full-scale investigation.
“In the end they didn’t care about any of the women,” Kincaid said during a recent telephone interview with her lawyers by her side. “I was told, ‘They are not victims, they are complainants.’ ”
John Carpenter, a retired ATF agent who worked with Quindley, said he called Brandon in 2014 and urged him to take action against Wright because he was making the job intolerable for Quindley and other women.
Carpenter said he told Brandon, “You’ve got to put an end to this.”
He said Brandon seemed “super receptive,” but nothing happened.
While the ATF declined to comment on its handling of Quindley’s case, in his statement to the Globe, Brandon said: “I am also committed to accountability; it is essential to maintaining a workplace free from harassment and other forms of discrimination. I hold all ATF executives, managers, supervisors, and employees accountable for complying with anti-harassment policies. Any violation of these policies will result in prompt corrective action, including appropriate disciplinary action that is consistent with the laws and regulations governing the discipline of federal employees.”
In September 2015, Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the inspector general of the Justice Department, Michael Horowitz, warning that eight whistle-blowers, including Quindley, told his office they had reported allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, gender discrimination, and witness intimidation to the ATF’s internal affairs division “largely to no avail.”
He questioned whether the ATF was following its zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.
The attorney general’s office responded that no direct claims of sexual harassment have ever been filed against Wright, and that the ATF had not substantiated Quindley’s claim that he sexually harassed other women.
In a 43-page final decision on Quindley’s equal employment opportunity complaint, the Justice Department’s complaint adjudication office found in September 2015 that Quindley had been subjected to a hostile work environment, primarily perpetuated by Wright and condoned by Smith.
Wright displayed “discriminatory animus” toward Quindley and other women at ATF, according to the decision, noting that some of the male agents she worked with corroborated her claims and “believed her work environment was hostile and abusive.”
The decision also said there was no evidence that the ATF ever took any corrective action in response to Quindley’s complaints of harassment. The government was ordered to pay damages.
Quindley’s resounding victory appeared to have little impact on Wright or Smith, who both had moved on to prestigious assignments. Wright received a voluntary transfer to Puerto Rico, where he’s currently serving as a resident-agent-in-charge, according to court filings.
In November 2015, the inspector general’s office concluded that Smith had gambled while on duty, misused his government travel card to get cash advances to gamble, and drove to casinos in his government car, according to a court filing by the government in Kincaid’s case and an inspector general’s investigative summary.
The case was referred to the ATF for “appropriate action.” Two months later Smith was appointed executive assistant to the director, where he remained until his retirement last year.
In response to inquiries from the Globe, Smith’s attorney, Danielle Bess Obiorah, e-mailed a statement. “Mr. Smith was a decorated agent of the ATF and served honorably and admirably for 30 years before his voluntary retirement,” the statement read. “He never condoned nor was aware of any discrimination directed toward any employee. He never harassed or subjected any employee to discrimination.”
For Quindley, the ruling didn’t squelch the workplace harassment. In the wake of the decision, the ATF asked the inspector general’s office to investigate her government credit card use. Quindley alleged in federal documents that the complaint, which proved unfounded, started with Smith.
Also, an anonymous person posted sexually explicit images and pornographic videos, falsely linked to her, online, according to a sworn statement Quindley made to internal affairs. She believed a colleague was trying to threaten and intimidate her.
John Cooper, who became Quindley’s boss after Smith was promoted, said he ordered an initial threat assessment to weigh concerns about Quindley’s safety and security, then asked internal affairs to investigate who posted the images.
“To the best of my knowledge, that was not followed up on,” said Cooper, now retired from ATF. “If an employee feels a legitimate threat and cause for concern, you have an obligation to put your best foot forward. I don’t believe that was adequately done.”
After winning her first claim against the ATF, Quindley filed a second one with the agency’s equal employment opportunity office alleging more retaliation. Wachtel said the government resolved both cases last year by paying Quindley $533,000, which included $238,000 in attorneys’ fees.
The ATF settled a different retaliation and discrimination suit in Boston in November. Jennifer Norcross, an ATF intelligence research specialist, alleged she was suspended in 2014 after complaining that female specialists had to attend a training session that male agents were allowed to skip.
According to the suit, Norcross’s female colleague in ATF’s Boston office told a supervisor: “I guess the penises don’t have to go to the training today; only the vaginas have to go?” The ATF found Norcross displayed “inappropriate behavior” by laughing and telling the other woman, “I would give you a prize if I had one.” Norcross was suspended for one day, and the other woman for two days.
Norcross complained of unequal treatment, since just a month earlier three male agents went undisciplined for their role regarding sexually suggestive photos shared in the Boston office.
The photos, attached to the suit, showed agent Philip Ball with his pants down at his knees and boxers exposed, standing over Eric Kotchian, who was stretched out on the floor, partially under a desk. Agent Robert White e-mailed the photo to women in the office, according to the suit. It wasn’t until Norcross complained about her suspension that Ball and White received reprimands.
The ATF settled the case by paying Norcross $41,000, reducing her suspension to a reprimand, and transferring her to another office, according to her attorney, Kavita Goyal.
In a statement to the Globe, Grassley said law enforcement should be “a guiding example of professionalism and proper conduct,” but his oversight work has found that “too often, inadequate systems to track and respond to misconduct claims only add insult to injury for harassment or discrimination at work.”
He said he’s been working with the ATF, other Justice Department agencies, and their inspector General to improve the work environment, and some progress has been made, “but more still needs to be done to foster a workplace that respects and protects all of its employees.”
Quindley said she has seen positive changes, including in the leadership at ATF’s internal affairs division, and noted, “I’m in a good place right now and it’s because of some pretty remarkable men that did stand up and do the right thing.”
The problem, according to Quindley, was the men who didn’t.Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.