Chief operating officer of Armed Forces retirement home sexually harassed employees, IG claims


The former chief operating officer of Armed Forces Retirement Home sexually harassed three employees and retaliated against an employee when she rejected his sexual advances, according to a report by the Department of Defense inspector general.

James M. Branham resigned from his position as Civil Servant No. 2 at the Department of Defense Armed Services Retirement Home on Nov. 9, 2021, according to the report released Wednesday. A new COO was appointed in December.

“We find his behavior particularly egregious given his position as the AFRH’s general manager and the authority he wielded over junior female employees,” the investigators wrote.

Officials at the Armed Forces Retirement Home declined to say whether legal action would be taken against Branham, citing politics. DoD investigators said they would forward their report to Washington Headquarters Services for inclusion in Branham’s personnel file.

Headquarters is a DoD field activity that provides administrative and management support to several DoD components and military departments in the National Capital Region.

“I commend the three employees who cooperated with this investigation and reported what happened to them,” Stephen T. Rippe, CEO of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, said in an email to the Military Times. “No one should be harassed at work – ever. This case is particularly troubling because it involved the leadership of the Home. Our employees and residents should expect the best from their leaders, who must uphold the highest possible standards .

“As this report makes clear, that did not happen in this case and I firmly stand by the conclusion of the report.” He noted that “despite this failure of one individual’s leadership, the report did not critique the home’s policies and procedures or offer recommendations for improvement.”

Branham could not be reached for comment.

“Mr. Branham’s actions created an intimidating, hostile, and offensive work environment that made these female employees uncomfortable or caused them distress,” the DoD IG report said. They also found that he had retaliated against one of the employees, treating her differently from the others regarding quarantine and permission to work from home during the early months of the pandemic.

Branham, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, started as chief operating officer at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in February 2018, amid financial crisis at AFRH. The the previous COO was fired in September 2017 by a DoD official who cited his reluctance to consolidate the finances of the agency’s two houses.

AFRH is open primarily to select retired and former enlisted members and their spouses, with campuses in Washington, D.C., and Gulfport, Mississippi. Branham worked on the Washington campus.

Here’s how a new plan could help shore up the finances of a struggling retirement home

In addition to resident fees, revenue-sharing and rental agreements, donors, and the AFRH Trust Fund, homes rely on the 50-month deduction from enlisted members’ pay in active duty and revenue from fines levied on enlisted members for disciplinary offenses.

The DoD Hotline received a complaint against Branham on August 15, 2020, alleging he sexually harassed junior female employees and retaliated against one of the female employees for rejecting his sexual advances. After opening the investigation on Nov. 10, 2020, the Inspector General reviewed more than 200,000 DoD records, including emails and attached documents and photos, and interviewed the person who filed the complaint and eight others. employees.

Investigators made no recommendations regarding remedies for the employee who suffered retaliation — identified as Employee 2 — because she left the organization for another full-time position elsewhere.

Branham began dating one of his subordinates in 2019, identified as Employee 1, after he asked her out for dinner. Investigators reviewed numerous emails between her and Branham, who used her official government email. They also found five photographs that Branham forwarded from his personal email account to his government email account which appeared to be of this employee “in various states of dress or undress”.

Investigators’ analysis showed that Branham sent the photographs from his cellphone to his government email address “within minutes or hours of sending highly sexually explicit emails” to the employee. They ended their relationship in March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employee 1 told investigators that after the physical relationship ended, she felt that their personal and professional relationship was “awkward” and “strange” due to the previous physical relationship.

Branham declined to be interviewed by investigators, but in his response to their preliminary findings, he agreed that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with the employee, but disagreed with some of their findings, according to the report.

“Mr. Branham believed that his relationship with Employee 1 was consensual and did not constitute sexual harassment. We disagree,” the investigators wrote. “Mr. Branham initiated, continued, and entered into an intimate relationship with a junior employee. The junior employee told us that she felt uneasy and uncomfortable and did not think she could say nope.

The employee described this relationship with Branham as inappropriate and wrong, they said.

Branham also agreed that his written communications with a second and third employee were “unprofessional and regretted that the communications made those employees uncomfortable,” and that he should not have written the comments, according to The report.

The investigators remained on their first conclusions. “Mr. Branham’s general conduct interfered with the individual performance of subordinate employees within his organization and created an intimidating, hostile, and offensive work environment that made such employees feel uncomfortable or distress,” they wrote.

The woman identified as Employee 2 told investigators that she repeatedly pushed back or ignored Branham’s sexual harassment, in incidents that occurred between August 2018 and March 2020. This included removing her hands from her shoulders several times when he tried to massage her. Although Branham told investigators that his physical gestures rejecting her sexual advances “could not tell her that he had engaged in an abuse of authority,” he is wrong, they said.

This employee alleged that Branham took four personal actions against her in retaliation, and investigators accepted three of her allegations. Those allegations involved refusing to allow her to self-isolate and quarantine through telecommuting, after she exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 or managed exposure to COVID-19 during incidents in April, July and August 2020.

Investigators found that in several similar situations, other employees were treated differently. Branham himself quarantined and telecommuted.

The employee was eligible to telecommute and her work was not essential to the operation of AFRH residential care facilities, investigators found. “Branham sexually harassed Employee 2 on multiple occasions throughout her time and treated her differently than other telework-eligible employees with respect to telecommuting during the pandemic,” they wrote.

Investigators interviewed six other employees of the Armed Forces Retirement Home; five of them had frequent contact with Branham.

Four of the six employees said the allegations surprised them. Another employee said the allegations were “hard to believe” and the sixth employee called the allegations “absurd”. Some of the employees said they heard Branham tell jokes or make humorous comments, but none heard him tell a joke that contained sexual innuendo.

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