Holding the Government Accountable

Watchdogs Need to Stop Using Jargon and Weasel Words to Obscure Misconduct

Degrading Women in Your Office is More than Just Impolite
(Image: Shutterstock; Illustration by POGO)

On Valentine’s Day the Department of Defense Inspector General announced the release of a report substantiating allegations that Joseph Guzowski, a senior official at the Army’s Inspector General Office, sexually harassed and groped employees. But you might have missed that if you only read the email summary, which only said he had “failed to treat an employee with dignity and respect.”

Happily, Tom Vanden Brook at USA Today does not mince words in his headline: “Army watchdog rapped for allegedly groping women, criticizing their ‘belly fat.’”

[I]f congressional offices cannot get through a boring report… then it hardly matters whether the IG has produced groundbreaking major work.

This may seem like a small point, but one of the most powerful tools Inspectors General have to sound the alarm about their investigations is the language they choose to convey to the public serious problems. They need to shout from the roof tops! “Inspectors General cannot compel an agency to undertake any action; the IGs' power is that of persuasion—or public opprobrium,” we wrote in our 2009 report Inspectors General: Accountability is a Balancing Act. “[I]f congressional offices cannot get through a boring report…then it hardly matters whether the IG has produced groundbreaking major work.”

The report describes how one of the women received an unwanted kiss after reluctantly agreeing to meet Guzowski for a drink after work. He had assured her that he was “going to be looking out for her” so she thought it would be ok. After she agreed he tried to get her to change her clothes before they went out. “No way I’m doing that,” she said she told him. “I’m not going to go home, and change into girl clothes, and meet you.”

At the restaurant, she said Gurkowski was “continuously reaching over…trying to get me to take my jacket off.” After not being able to get an alternative ride home, she agreed to let him take her home only to have him kiss her against her will. Later that week she said he touched her butt against her will.

She wasn’t the only one. The IG also found in the course of their investigation that three other women had experienced similar behavior. In the seven months leading up to his touching the initial woman’s butt he had completed four separate training courses or refreshers in ethics and anti-sexual harassment programs. A number of witnesses also reported comments he made about colleagues’ weight.

Guzkowski denied all of the allegations. The Defense Department’s Inspector General recommended the Army “take appropriate action.”

The problems substantiated by the Inspector General’s report are extremely serious for a number of reasons. As Vanden Brook and the IG note, one of the duties of the senior official in question is overseeing Army programs like its sexual harassment response and prevention program. But even more importantly, as an office entrusted with handling sensitive matters and investigating the conduct of others, this kind of misconduct is unacceptable. The IG report characterizes the significance of the behavior as “egregious” but has effectively buried that conclusion in the body of the report.

When someone in a position of power and trust violates the expectations of that position, jargon and weasel words need to go out the window.