Probe Raises Questions Over National Park Service Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post
Portions of an Interior Department review of an investigation of alleged insider theft from the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site cite shoddy work and potentially criminal misconduct by a special agent within the National Park Service’s Intermountain Region.
The report by Interior's Office of Inspector General also raises questions about the relationship between the region and the Western National Parks Association, the cooperating association that operates the historic site’s commercial trading post, and points to a lack of Park Service oversight of cooperating associations at 65 other NPS sites within the Intermountain Region.
The Park Service investigation into the Hubbell Trading Post incident was launched in April 2004 when the Intermountain Region office in Denver received allegations of forgery and embezzlement at the trading post involving “Indian trader” Billy Malone. It lingered on, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, until early 2007 when the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona declined to prosecute Mr. Malone.
The OIG got involved near the end of the investigation when a second NPS special agent involved in the matter began to question its integrity. While the OIG’s investigation determined that the initial NPS special agent handling the case falsified search warrants used to obtain items from Mr. Malone’s residence, and failed to maintain a clean chain-of-custody of the items seized, there has been no word if any action was taken against him.
While snippets of the OIG's report raise questions about the management of the Park Service's Intermountain office and its investigative procedures, the handling of the matter by the OIG raises some questions as well. OIG’s mission is to “promote the highest standards of integrity, impartiality and professionalism within DOI,” yet the report into the Park Service’s Hubbell Trading Post investigation remains unreleased more than two years after it was completed.
Officials at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based advocacy group for public employees, wonder if the OIG has been intentionally sitting on the report.
“We’re not sure whether it’s complicity or just inertia by the inspector general,” Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, said earlier this week. “The inspector general is supposed to be the final check on this, and the fact that they in essence kind of shelved this -- whether this was inadvertent or deliberate we’re not sure -- is troublesome.”
And there’s been a delay on the Park Service’s part. While then-Park Service Director Mary Bomar was forwarded OIG’s report in January 2008 with a request that the agency provide a “written response to this office within 90 days advising us of the results of your review and actions taken,” OIG documents indicate that Park Service officials didn’t reply until June 23, 2009.
Part of that lag likely was tied to the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration as well as the delay in getting Jon Jarvis confirmed as Ms. Bomar’s successor, something that didn’t occur until last fall. Still, whatever response the agency finally sent to OIG last summer remains cloaked by both Park Service and OIG officials.
Park Service officials in Washington did not answer questions about the matter Tuesday. Steve Martin, the Intermountain Region director at the time of the Hubbell probe and currently superintendent at Grand Canyon National Park, was in the canyon and not immediately available, his staff said. Mike Snyder, who was Mr. Martin’s deputy at the time and who soon will retire from his position as Intermountain Region director rather than take a reassignment, did not immediately respond to questions pertaining to his role in the Hubbell investigation other than to say through a spokesman that he had been removed from a civil lawsuit stemming from the matter.
That lawsuit was filed by Mr. Malone last summer against a number of Park Service officials from the Intermountain Region, including Mr. Martin and Mr. Snyder. It accused them of misconduct and wrongful seizure of property belonging to Mr. Malone. It also alleged that Park Service officials collaborated with officials from the Western National Park Association in trying to build a case against the Indian trader.
However, a judge removed the Park Service officials from the matter earlier this month, saying he didn’t think a case could be built to show a conspiracy against Mr. Malone existed between the NPS and WNPA, said William Hobson, Mr. Malone’s attorney. But the lawyer also said Tuesday that two Western National Parks Association officials were not removed from the matter and that he now had subpoena power to obtain the entire OIG report and related Park Service documents.
“I suspect that when we get to the end of the day we’re going to find that there are documents showing that there was an agreement between the NPS defendants and various government officers,” Mr. Hobson said. “The WNPA ... made an agreement with the National Park Service, the law enforcement people, that they would pay $75,000 for a forensic audit, and that they would then -- this is the kind of sleight of hand thing that we think was going on -- that (Park Service officials stated) ‘this would benefit you really well.’”
If such evidence exists, he said, the federal defendants could possibly be brought back into the matter.
“Assuming I get some discovery that’s helpful, I can file a motion ... to bring whomever back in based on the discovery of the evidence that was denied to me,” the lawyer said. “It’s going to be evidence driven. It depends on what the evidence is going to show.”
The lawsuit maintains Mr. Malone was made to be the scapegoat for an alleged history of accounting woes at the historic site that’s located in the Four Corners town of Ganado, Arizona. Among the allegations were that Mr. Malone wrongly appropriated 6,000 pieces of jewelry, nearly 560 Navajo rugs, and pottery from the trading post.
While a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Traveler for the OIG report back in November remains pending, portions of the report and related files were obtained by PEER earlier this year after the organization sued Interior. Those heavily redacted papers portray both a questionable investigation by the Intermountain Region and a curious relationship between the regional office and the Western National Park Association.
"Our investigation determined that the NPS Special Agent assigned to the Hubbell Trading Post investigation submitted false information on the search warrant affidavit and did not properly account for cash and evidence seized," noted the memorandum Stephen A. Hardrove, the OIG's assistant inspector general for investigations, sent along with his staff’s report to Director Bomar right about the time of the change in administrations and her retirement.
"We also determined that there appeared to be a lack of oversight of ... (redacted) ... that operates the Hubbell Trading Post under a cooperative agreement with NPS, and an inappropriate relationship between NPS and (redacted)," the memorandum added.
Among the OIG’s findings:
* One individual interviewed by the OIG staff “acknowledged that there had been a breach in the chain of custody for evidence...”
* “...we could not locate an official case file documenting investigative activity or periodic case reviews by NPS law enforcement management. NPS could not provide essential documents during our investigation, including chain-of-custody records, interview reports, copies of subpoenas served, and search-warrant inventory records.”
* Rather than keep outside parties at arm’s length during the investigation, the Intermountain Region’s “management allowed an almost open-door policy in regard to including (redacted) in the investigation at the trading post. (Redacted) stated that (redacted) received six to ten phone calls a week from (redacted) regarding the case status and also spoke with (redacted) Chairman (redacted) about the investigation on at least one occasion.”
(The lawsuit filed in the matter contends that the phone calls were between Clyde Yee, the NPS special agent who handled the initial investigation, and Leeann Simpson, the executive director of the WNPA. It also alleges that “Yee would call WNPA Board Chairman Babbitt and provide additional case briefings, particularly before WNPA Board meetings.”)
At PEER, Mr. Ruch said he found the reluctance of the OIG to provide documents in the case when presented with the group’s FOIA request unusual. Indeed, only after PEER filed a lawsuit did some of the dozens of documents become available to the group. Still, many more remain at issue.
“We thought that once we submitted the request that the IG, given that we’ve had to sue them a couple of times already, would comply,” he said. “And so we were surprised. But we’re beginning to become convinced that Interior IG is really one of the worst agencies out of the Pentagon for FOIA complaints.”
Mr. Ruch also said it seemed highly unusual for the OIG to claim exemptions time and time again for refusing to produce documents in the case.
“We have reason to believe that even though that report is critical ... they took out an awful lot of factual stuff,” he said. “Why and exactly what they took out, we have an idea, but we don’t have a paper trail yet on. And we still can’t figure out why they never issued the report.”
The matter, said Mr. Ruch, seems to point in two directions: One, it draws into question the professionalism of the Park Service’s law enforcement operations, and, two, questions how impartial the OIG staff really is.
“I don’t understand why the IG in essence is acting as this deflector shield for the Park Service,” he said.