The behaviour of the United States Ambassador to Samoa, Scott Brown, during a function he attended at Vailima earlier this year has been described as “undiplomatic,” “rude” and “culturally insensitive.”
And it appears there may be more to the complaints about Mr. Brown’s behavior that night than a simple misunderstanding as reported yesterday.
Contacted for a comment yesterday, Chargé d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Samoa, Antone C. Greubel, said they take the allegations seriously.
“The State Department takes allegations of misconduct seriously and we investigate them thoroughly,” the statement reads. “We hold all employees to the highest standard.”
Mr. Greubel said the Office of Inspector General conducted an independent review of the allegations and reported its findings to the Department.
“Senior leadership at the State Department has been in contact with Ambassador Brown and he has been counseled on standards of conduct for government employees, which also includes Ambassadors.”
According to The Guardian, U.S. officials from the State Department’s office of inspector general flew to New Zealand to interview Mr. Brown about what happened at a Peace Corps reception held the U.S. residence at Vailima.
Mr. Brown admitted to the New Zealand news website Stuff that he had been admonished for praising the appearance of several of the party’s attendees. He also said he had remarked that the waiting staff were good enough to earn hundreds of dollars in the U.S.
The incident at the centre of the affair was a party that Mr. Brown attended with his wife, Gail Huff, to celebrate 50 years of the Peace Corps in Samoa. It was his inaugural visit to Samoa – of which he is also the official US representative.
The party was intended as the climax of the ambassador’s trip, a night of celebration. People were in high spirits. They were offered beer, wine, champagne and local hors d’oeuvres, including slices of taro topped with palusami, spring rolls and chicken skewers.
But something went wrong that night. As one attendee describes it, something was “off”.
Over the past two months, the Guardian has spoken to various witnesses who attended the party and who claim the behaviour of the Ambassador – the first appointed by the US president, Donald Trump – was worse than he has admitted.
It is understood that two complaints under investigation by the US state department against Brown originally came from two female Peace corps volunteers who were at the event, and who served food and drink to the guests as a way to flip the cultural norm of Samoans serving westerners.
There are also other complaints that the ambassador’s behaviour was “shocking”, “culturally insensitive”, “rude” and “undiplomatic”. The Guardian contacted more than a dozen people who attended the party and spoke to a number who said he had made them feel uncomfortable.
One woman told the Guardian that Brown allegedly stared at her body when she was introduced to him. She did not want to be identified, but said: “The first time I met him, he looked at my chest immediately.” She alleged that another female colleague had a similar experience.
“I felt immediately uncomfortable and it didn’t feel right,” she said.
A male former Peace Corps volunteer described a strained atmosphere as the ambassador shouted at guests to be quiet and listen to him.
“It was very culturally insensitive,” he said. “He just did multiple things in 15 seconds that really put me off, and looking around [I] saw it put off a lot of other people as well.
“At least twice, maybe three times, he was telling everybody: ‘Stop talking, be quiet, listen to me.’”
Another former Peace Corps volunteer called Brown’s speech “really pompous and sort of shocking”.
The man, who again did not want to be named, said he approached Brown after his speech, hoping to gauge the man representing his country.
He described their exchange as candid, and claimed Brown became aggressive when he mentioned he was disappointed by Trump’s actions following his inauguration. Brown angrily told him to get over it, he said.
“A lot of people were really upset by the tone of his speech that night,” said another attendee. “He was rudely shouting everyone down. After the speech I was so put off I didn’t approach him. I wanted no personal contact with him.”
Another former Peace Corps volunteer who attended the party told the Guardian: “I know someone who works at the US embassy … and he said Scott went totally off the book [in the speech].
“He said something like: ‘When Kennedy started the Peace Corps 100 years ago’, so it seemed he didn’t really know what he was talking about.”
The Guardian approached a dozen members of the Peace Corps currently serving in Samoa.
None of them denied the original allegations of inappropriate conduct by Brown towards two female Peace Corps members, instead referring all questions to the country director. Two said they had been barred from speaking to the media, even though they wanted to.
Brown has not spelt out the details of the allegations being investigated. The Guardian is, however, aware of their nature and has put them to Brown’s representatives, the state department and the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps country director for Samoa, Dr Sherry Russell, when contacted on the telephone by the Guardian in August, said: “I don’t want to make any comment right now to anything you’ve said. I am unable to do so … I can’t confirm or deny. I am hanging up on you now.”
Subsequent emails to Russell have gone unanswered.
The Guardian also contacted the state department in Washington, the US embassy in Wellington and the its high commission in Apia in August, requesting details of the ambassador’s trip to Samoa and comment about allegations concerning his behaviour there.
On Wednesday a spokesperson for the US embassy in Wellington said: “Ambassador Brown has nothing to add to the comments he made in this afternoon’s interview” with New Zealand media.
Brown said to the media that he had told some attendees they looked “beautiful” or “handsome”, and told others they could make hundreds of dollars working in the hospitality industry in the US.
He and Huff said they had no idea the comments would be regarded as offensive, and the “takeaway” was that they would be very, very careful about what they said in the future.
“I was told by my people that you’re not Scott Brown from New Hampshire any more, you’re an ambassador, and you have to be culturally aware of different cultures and sensitivities,” Brown told the media. “We are in a different culture. Even though we all speak English, sometimes when we say one thing it means the complete different thing.”
Brown went on to say “politics is a bloodsport” and that there were a lot of people at the event who did not like Trump.
His claims of minor cultural slip-ups do not gel, however, with the accounts of others who attended the party, some of whom considered confronting Brown about his behaviour. Others left early because they felt so ill at ease. Two attendees said they didn’t agree with Brown’s account of the party.
Brown first came to national attention in the US in 2010, when he narrowly won a special election for the senate in Massachusetts.
He lost his bid for a full term in 2012 to Elizabeth Warren in an ugly race in which he repeatedly questioned Warren’s claims to Native American ancestry.
After losing the seat, Brown moved to his holiday home in New Hampshire, where he mounted an unsuccessful bid for the Senate and once hid in a restaurant bathroom to avoid questions about contraception from a Guardian reporter.
He then became a contributor at Fox News, where he faced allegations of sexual harassment from a former Fox employee in a lawsuit against the company. Brown dismissed them as a fabrication. In 2016 he became one of the first national political figures to endorse Trump on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.
Brown has won a reputation as a politician who shoots from the hip. He once modelled nude for Cosmopolitan magazine, has repeatedly opened up about his impoverished and abusive childhood, and invited New Zealanders to visit his embassy residence in Wellington and grab a beer with him.
The relationship between the US and Samoa is described as a “close friendship”. The first US consul was posted to Apia as far back as 1856 and American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the US formed from the eastern part of the Samoan archipelago.
Brown, however, was notably absent from the Pacific Leaders Forum held in Apia two months after the July party and after the subsequent complaints. The US embassy declined to say why when asked by the Guardian.