After a seven-year odyssey that pitted political appointees in the Interior Department and National Park Service against a public servant who spoke out on how staff cuts would impact public safety, a federal appeals board has ordered the Park Service to reinstate Teresa Chambers as chief of the U.S. Park Police.
Barring a last-minute appeal by the Park Service, which has declined comment on the matter, Ms. Chambers could be back on the job early next month.
The case, which dates to December 2003, lined up Donald Murphy, a deputy Park Service director, and Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary at the Interior Department, against Ms. Chambers over her public comments into how Park Police staffing cuts would endangered the public's safety.
While the case has bounced from administrative reviews and hearing boards to federal court and back, in the end the Merit Systems Protections Board concluded earlier this month that Ms. Chambers was wrongly fired for telling a Washington Post reporter that cuts in her force would jeopardize the safety of motorists on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
Charges that Ms. Chambers was wrong to discuss department appropriations with members of Congress, failed to follow a superior's orders, and failed to follow the chain of command withered under the board's review. She was fired, the board concluded, for being a whistleblower.
The court held that an increase in traffic accidents was a significant and serious danger to public safety, that the appellant’s statement detailed the specific consequences that had already resulted from the diversion of officers from the BW Parkway – more traffic accidents – and that the statement included the specific details as to the cause of the increased danger, namely, the reduction from four officers to two. ... The court found that the alleged danger was not vague or speculative and was more than likely to occur, given that it had, in fact, already occurred. ... The court also held that the appellant’s belief that traffic accidents presented a substantial danger and that the diversion of Park Police from the BW Parkway was the cause of the increase in traffic accidents, was reasonable, given Mr. Murphy’s acknowledgement that a change in police staffing to patrol the highways could affect traffic safety, as well as the appellant’s expertise in public safety.
Furthermore, the board, whose ruling is attached below, found that there was "ample evidence in the record suggesting that the acting officials (Mr. Murphy and Mr. Hoffman) were motivated to place the appellant on administrative leave and remove her in reprisal for her ... disclosures."
"Given that the Federal Circuit has found the conduct alleged in charge two to be protected whistleblowing activity, the undisputed record plainly establishes that the agency would not have removed the appellant in the absence of her protected whistleblowing disclosures," the board continued.
On Friday, Ms. Chambers said she hoped the decision would flow out across the federal government.
“What’s nice is I think it’s good news for a lot more people than just me. I’d be arrogant to think that this case is about me," she said in an interview. "Hopefully it’s letting folks know that it’s not OK to fire a civil servant simply for telling the truth."
In addition with directing the Park Service to reinstate Ms. Chambers within 20 days of its Jan. 11 ruling, the board ordered the agency to pay her back pay, with interest, and whatever other benefits she was entitled to. She also could seek compensation for her legal fees, the ruling pointed out.
“I’m just so thrilled that finally we had a judicial body that took the time to look at the evidence and make the right decision. It’s surreal," said Ms. Chambers, who expected to meet with Park Service officials this coming week to discuss her reinstatement.
The board's ruling, she said, was much more than she allowed herself to expect.
“I think part of the shock was because, although we expected a positive outcome from the Merits Systems Protection Board, because there really was nothing left to the government’s case, we also knew that the board had several options, including a remand back to the administrative judge, or a deferral back over to the Department of Interior for any charges that they decided still merited being sustained," she said.
"I don’t believe any of us had anticipated the possibility that the board was just going to end it and give us everything. They also could have asked for oral arguments. Any of those possibilities, but this one just floored us."
At Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which handled Ms. Chambers' legal challenge, officials were understandably pleased with the ruling.
“This is a wonderful ruling, not only for Chief Chambers but for thousands who believe that honesty is part of public service,” said Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who argued the appeals for Chief Chambers. “The wheels of justice turn slowly but eventually they do turn.”
The history of the Park Police predates both the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. Created in 1791 by our first president, George Washington, the U. S. Park Police have been on duty in our Federal parks for more than 200 years. The United States Park Police is a unit of the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, with jurisdiction in all National Park Service areas and certain other Federal and State lands. The United States Park Police provide law enforcement services to designated areas within the National Park Service (primarily the Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco, California metropolitan areas).