WASHINGTON — The head of the U.S. Forest Service stepped down Wednesday amid an investigation into sexual harassment accusations against him, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department said.
The resignation of the agency's chief, Tony Tooke, comes days after "PBS NewsHour" reported that the Agriculture Department was investigating sexual misconduct complaints against him, including that Tooke had relationships with subordinates before his appointment to the top role.
According to the department's spokesman, Tooke said in an email to his employees that he had been cooperating with the investigation but wanted to "make way for a new leader."
"I have been forthright during the review, but I cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported in the news media," Tooke wrote. "What I can control, however, are decisions I make today and the choice of a path for the future that is best for our employees."
The Agriculture Department investigation was announced immediately after reports of a broad culture of harassment and retaliation at the Forest Service. According to "NewsHour," interviews with 34 women who have worked for the service revealed widespread misconduct, including several reports of rape.
The nature of the accusations against Tooke were not clear Wednesday night.
"In my experience, in order to effectively lead any organization, you must have the moral authority to inspire its members to work toward the goal of continuous improvement," Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, said in a statement. "Chief Tooke has determined that it is best for the Forest Service, its future and its employees that he step aside."
Perdue appointed Tooke over the summer; he had been at the agency for several decades. Tooke wrote in the email to Forest Service staff that his retirement would be effective immediately, the department spokesman said.
The Forest Service, a part of the Agriculture Department, is responsible for managing 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in the United States.