National Park Service Sued Over Termination of Indian Trader at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
A case stretching from the dusty high desert of Arizona all the way to Washington, D.C., has many of the markings of a Tony Hillerman novel -- conspiracy, intrigue, and wrongdoing in Indian country. It also has spurred a lawsuit accusing a number of National Park Service officials with misconduct and wrongful seizure of property belonging to a man described as one of the "last authentic Indian traders," and opened an unpleasant window into the cooperating association affiliated with the historic site.
Filed by Billy Malone late in August, the lawsuit weaves a story of persecution and conspiracy, one aimed at making him the scapegoat for an alleged history of accounting woes at the actual trading post at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in the Four Corners town of Ganado, Arizona, where he worked as the resident trader.
Allegations laid down in the lawsuit accuse Park Service investigators not only of violating Mr. Malone's 4th Amendment rights by misappropriating his personal property as "spoils" of the investigation but also wrongly collaborating with officials from the Western National Park Association, the non-profit cooperating association that runs the Hubbell Trading Post, in trying to concoct a case against him.
(NPS Special Agent Clyde) Yee failed to exercise reasonable diligence in reviewing the WNPA cooperative agreements underlying his claim for federal jurisdiction in the allegation for theft of federal funds, failed to review corroborating information provided by (Leeann) Simpson regarding claimed revenue deficits, failed to make a minimal effort to understand the basis of Simpson’s allegations on behalf of WNPA by contacting WNPA’s contracted accountant, Marianne DeVries. Had Yee contacted Ms. DeVries he would have discovered that WNPA’s accounting generally (including but not limited to the trading enterprise at Hubbell Trading Post) was in such disarray that it had no idea about the financial affairs of the entire organization.
Among those named in the lawsuit, which asks for a jury trial, are both the current and former Intermountain regional directors of the Park Service, Mike Snyder and Steve Martin, respectively; Mr. Martin's wife, Cyd, a Park Service employee who allegedly failed to follow up a lead in the case; Clyde Yee, the special agent who initially investigated the matter; the Western National Parks Association; Leann Simpson, the association's executive director, and; Jim Babbitt, chairman of the association's board of directors.
If that lawsuit goes to trial, it could cast an ugly light on how Park Service managers in the Intermountain Regional Office -- all the way up to Regional Director Snyder -- conducted business with the cooperating association. Indeed, among the allegations contained in the lawsuit is the charge that the cooperating association "'partnered' with NPS in a criminal investigation for a promised benefit of receiving the spoils of the Billy Malone search and seizure..."
The matter wound all the way to Washington, D.C., where the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General took control of the investigation in November 2006, according to the lawsuit, which added that then-Park Service Director Mary Bomar "directed that other NPS personnel were to stand down."
And yet, the lawsuit alleges, "Despite being directed to stand down, various NPS personnel continued to involve themselves in the case."
In January 2007 the U.S. attorney in Arizona declined to prosecute Mr. Malone, according to the the lawsuit.
Officials for the Park Service's Intermountain Region had no immediate comment when contacted Thursday.
The investigation, which dates to 2004, sullied Mr.Malone's career and reputation, charges the lawsuit. The case has attracted the attention of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has sued the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General to force it to release a report of its investigation into the matter. PEER officials allege the case against Mr. Malone stemmed from a run-in he had with Mr. Babbitt.
By all accounts, Malone was one of the most experienced and trusted Indian traders on the Navajo Reservation, renowned for commitment to old-time trading ways that had long been encouraged by the National Park Service and even former WNPA officials. But he got crosswise with Jim Babbitt, brother of a former Interior Secretary and then chair of the WNPA board. The Association sparked a formal Park Service probe when it claimed large losses attributable to an alleged embezzlement scheme by Malone. The assigned NPS Special Agent, Clyde Yee, bungled the job, failing to assess if a theft had even occurred, and compounded matters by using false information to support a search warrant and then seizing from Malone a life-savings in personal property not even listed in the warrant.
Malone was fired and kicked out of his home but no charges were ever brought against him. After a year and a half, another Special Agent was brought in to take over the investigation, uncovering glaring defects in the earlier investigation, including the concealment of exculpatory evidence and finding the losses claimed by WNPA were likely the result of their own accounting errors. Since high-level NPS officials were also implicated in the misconduct and cover-up, this re-investigation was taken over by a special unit of the Office of Inspector General in November 2006. That report was completed in 2008 but never released
“The Inspector General is supposed to be part of the solution to government malfeasance but in this case the IG is part of the problem,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “President Obama promised his administration would act with renewed transparency, but this IG apparently never got that memo.”