The former chief operating officer of the Armed Forces Retirement Home sexually harassed three employees and retaliated against one employee when she rejected his sexual advances, according to a report from the Department of Defense inspector general.
James M. Branham resigned from his position as the No. 2 official at the Defense Department’s Armed Forces Retirement Home 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 COO and the authority he held over the subordinate female employees,” the investigators wrote.
Officials at the Armed Forces Retirement Home declined to comment on whether any legal action will be pursued against Branham, citing policy. The DoD investigators stated they will forward their report to Washington Headquarters Services for inclusion in Branham’s personnel file.
The headquarters is a DoD field activity that provide administrative and management support to multiple DoD components and military departments in the National Capital Region.
“I commend the three employees who cooperated in this investigation and reported what was happening to them,” said Armed Forces Retirement Home CEO Stephen T. Rippe in an email to Military Times. “No one should be harassed in the workplace — ever. This case is especially troubling because it involved the Home’s leadership. Our employees and residents should expect the very best from their leaders, who should hold themselves to the highest possible standard.
“As this report makes clear, that did not happen in this case and I stand firmly by the report’s conclusion.” He noted that “despite this failure of leadership by an individual, the report did not fault the Home’s polices and procedures nor offer any 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 stated. They also found that he made reprisals against one of the employees, treating her differently from others when it came to quarantining and being allowed to telework during the first months of the pandemic.
Branham, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, started as COO at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in February 2018, in the midst of financial turmoil at AFRH. The previous COO was fired in September, 2017 by a DoD official who cited his unwillingness to shore up the finances of the agency’s two homes.
AFRH is open primarily to certain retired and former enlisted members and their spouses, with campuses in Washington, D.C., and Gulfport, Mississippi. Branham worked at the Washington campus.
In addition to residents’ fees, revenue sharing and leasing agreements, donors and the AFRH trust fund, the homes relies on the 50- -a-month paycheck deduction from active-duty enlisted members and the revenue from fines imposed on enlisted members for disciplinary violations.
The DoD hotline received a complaint against Branham Aug. 15, 2020, alleging he had sexually harassed subordinate female employees and took reprisal actions against one of the employees because she rejected his sexual advances. After initiating 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 as well as eight other employees.
The investigators made no recommendations regarding any remedies for the employee who suffered reprisals — identified as Employee 2 — because she has 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 to dinner. Investigators reviewed numerous emails between she and Branham, who used his official government email. They also found five photographs that Branham forwarded from his personal email account to his government email account that appeared to be that employee “in various states of dress or undress.”
Investigators’ analysis showed that Branham sent the photographs from his mobile phone 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 beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employee 1 told investigators that after the physical relationship ended, she felt their personal and professional relationship was “awkward” and “weird” because of the previous physical relationship.
Branham declined to be interviewed by investigators, but in his response to their preliminary conclusions, he agreed that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with the employee, but disagreed with some of their conclusions, 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, pursued and engaged in an intimate relationship with a subordinate employee. The subordinate employee told us that she felt uncomfortable and awkward and did not think she could say no.”
The employee described that relationship with Branham as inappropriate and wrong, they stated.
Branham also agreed that his written communications to a second and third employee were “unprofessional and regretted that the communications made these employees feel uncomfortable,” and that he shouldn’t have written the comments, according to the report.
The investigators stood by their initial conclusions. “Mr. Branham’s overall course of conduct interfered with the individual performance of subordinate female employees within his organization and created an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment that made these female employees uncomfortable or caused them distress,” they wrote.
The woman identified as Employee 2 told investigators she repeatedly rebuffed or ignored Branham’s sexual harassment, in incidents between August 2018 and March 2020. That included shrugging his hands off her shoulders multiple times when he attempted to massage her. Although Branham told investigators that her physical gestures rejecting his sexual advances “could not constitute a disclosure to him that he had engaged in an abuse of authority,” he is incorrect, they stated.
That employee alleged that Branham took four personnel actions against her in reprisal, and investigators agreed with three of her allegations. Those allegations involved him refusing to allow her to isolate and quarantine by teleworking, after exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms or managing COVID-19 exposure in incidents in April, July and August 2020.
The investigators found that in multiple similar situations, other employees were treated differently. Branham himself self-quarantined and teleworked.
The employee was eligible for telework, and her job was not essential to the functioning of the AFRH residential care facilities, investigators found. “Branham sexually harassed Employee 2 repeatedly throughout her time, and treated her differently than other telework-eligible employees when it came to teleworking during the pandemic,” they wrote.
The investigators interviewed six other employees at Armed Forces Retirement Home; five of whom 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 “preposterous.” 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.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.