UPDATE: Forest Service chief departure sparks backlash

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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — 12:15 p.m.

Lawmakers in Congress are calling for a hearing and investigation into sexual harassment at the U.S. Forest Service following the departure of its chief amid sexual misconduct allegations.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana said Thursday he is calling for a congressional hearing, saying that he wants to ensure "bad actors are held accountable."

Daines says Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke made the right decision to retire, days after it was revealed by PBS NewsHour that Tooke allegedly had relationships with former subordinates and was under investigation. The move followed reports in recent years of rampant harassment within the agency.

Rep. Jackie Speier of California, a Democrat and leading voice in Congress against sex harassment, called for a broad investigation of the Forest Service's "toxic culture" by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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U.S. Forest Service chief Tony Tooke has stepped down just days after revelations that he was under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct and amid reports of rampant misbehavior including rape within the agency's ranks.

A Forest Service spokesman on Thursday confirmed Tooke's sudden retirement less than seven months after he was named to the post by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

His departure was first reported by the Missoulian. It comes less than a week after PBS NewsHour reported Tooke was under investigation following relationships with subordinates before he became chief.

In a Wednesday night email to Forest Service employees, Tooke said he had cooperated with the investigation. He did not directly deny the allegations against him but said he "cannot combat every inaccuracy that is reported."

"In some of these news reports you may have seen references to my own behavior in the past," Tooke wrote. "This naturally raised questions about my record and prompted an investigation, which I requested and fully support and with which I have cooperated."

Forest Service spokesman Byron James declined to say if the investigation into Tooke would continue and a replacement was not immediately announced.

PBS and other outlets, including The Associated Press, have previously reported a culture of harassment and retaliation at the Forest Service dating back years. Many of the problems mirror misconduct within the nation's other major public lands agency, the Interior Department.

Congress held hearings on the problems at both agencies in 2016 and senior officials have repeatedly vowed to address the problem.

The Forest Service has about 35,000 employees and manages more than 300,000 square miles (777,000 square kilometers) of forests and grasslands in 43 states and Puerto Rico.

Tooke, a native of Alabama who joined the Forest Service at the age of 18, had worked in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Prior to becoming chief he served as regional forester for the southern U.S.

In announcing his appointment in August, Perdue cited Tooke's knowledge of forestry and his dedication to the "noble cause" of being a steward of public forests.

"Tony has been preparing for this role his whole life," Perdue said at the time. "His transition into leadership will be seamless."

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