A National Park Superintendent And His Questionable Real Estate Deal
What should be construed from the story that a National Park Service superintendent sold his house for more than three times its assessed value to a key concessionaire in his park and didn’t view it as a conflict of interest?
News that David Uberuaga sold his Ashford, Washington, home to the owner of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., while he was superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park with oversight of the concessionaire, appears to be a troubling conflict of interest.
Atop that are allegations from a watchdog group that Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, at one time Mr. Uberuaga's immediate boss, intervened to see that Mr. Uberuaga was named this past summer as superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park.
John Wessels, the Intermountain Region director who oversees Grand Canyon, on Thursday denied that allegation, saying the final decision was his and that "there was no coercion" in the least from Mr. Jarvis.
The interest in Mr. Jarvis's role, if any, in the appointment stems from the fact that his older brother, Destry Jarvis, has in the past lobbied on behalf of motorized river runners on the Colorado River through the national park.
The transaction between Mr. Uberuaga and the owner of Rainier Mountaineering occurred nearly a decade ago. Park Service officials say they long ago closed the file on the incident -- which the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle declined to prosecute after reviewing an investigation by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General -- with Mr. Uberuaga receiving an unspecified reprimand in his personnel file.
When asked about the matter this week, the agency sent out a terse statement noting that the matter was dealt with three years ago and that Mr. Uberuaga had been exonerated of any wrongdoing.
The National Park Service expects - and the American people deserve - that our employees meet the highest ethical standards.
Illegal or unethical behavior is not tolerated. Allegations of such actions are fully and completely investigated and those found at fault are subject to the most stringent penalties - from dismissal to criminal action. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is unacceptable and appropriate administrative action is taken.
David Uberuaga is a devoted public servant. Allegations of a conflict of interest regarding a concessioner a Mount Rainier were thoroughly investigated by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General more than three years ago and resolved.
The matter might have remained silent if not for the Seattle Times, where writer Ron Judd broke the story earlier this week after dogged Freedom of Information Act requests that produced hundreds of redacted pages of the investigation into the deal. Though aged, the story gains traction in light of Mr. Uberuaga's promotion to Grand Canyon.
The promotion went through the Park Service's Intermountain Regional Office in Denver, which has oversight for the Grand Canyon. But Director Jarvis, who in 2008 as the agency’s Pacific Region director signed the reprimand that Mr. Uberuaga received, either "intervened to direct or 'suggest'" Mr. Uberuaga's promotion, maintains Mr. Ruch of PEER.
"The selection committee, appointed by Jon Jarvis, was led by Dan Wenk, Yellowstone superintendent. They winnowed all applicants down to a list of three finalists: (Olympic National Park Superintendent) Karen Gustin, David Uberuaga, and Bert Frost (the Park Service's associate director for natural resources)," says Mr. Ruch.
While it wouldn't be unusual for the Park Service director to overrule a regional director on a personnel matter, Mr. Ruch contends that Mr. Jarvis should have recused himself from the Grand Canyon matter because of his brother's lobbying work in the park.
"Destry Jarvis was (and we believe still is) the paid lobbyist of the organization that represents the motorized river runner companies on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon National Park," the PEER official said. "These companies provide lucrative commercial services to park visitors under licenses issued and governed by the National Park Service at Grand Canyon National Park. The licensees Destry speaks for have business before the Park Service and adopt and advocate public policy positions regarding the management and administration of the park.
"Destry Jarvis is free to make his living anyway that is legal. However, Jon Jarvis needs to recuse himself from any decision about the Grand Canyon National Park as long as his brother is a lobbyist for nonfederal parties with business before the park and who seek to influence park managers and park management."
If Mr. Jarvis did indeed influence Mr. Wessel's selection of Mr. Uberuaga, that "is more than the appearance of a conflict of interest," says the PEER executive director.
"How do we know, for example, that Jarvis tilted towards Uberuaga may, in part, be because Jon Jarvis wanted someone as park manager who would be receptive to Destry’s lobbying?" Mr. Ruch says. "We don’t know that one way or the other. But, it is possible. This is what a conflict of interest looks like. NPS and the director’s decisions must be above all such suspicions. Sadly, this one is not."
In Washington, David Barna, the Park Service's chief of communications, said the director is careful to avoid involving himself in issues his brother has a role in.
"I spoke with Jon and he is not aware of anything Destry is working on related to NPS because they don't talk about it, nor does he even know about meetings Destry is having," Mr. Barna said. "Jon said that Destry stopped by for lunch the other day after some meeting here with DOI (the Interior Department), but Jon is not sure what the meeting was about. They have been at this for 30+ years and are good at keeping distance."
As for Mr. Uberuaga and his real estate deal, the case appeared "on its face" to be a conflict to investigators with the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General.
Not only was the OIG troubled by the sheer price of the sale, but it also suggested a possible conflict in that Mr. Uberuaga oversaw park concessions. Also troubling OIG investigators was that the sale wasn't financed the typical way, through a bank. Rather, Mr. Uberuaga held the note on the sale, they came to learn. Too, there was speculation at the time that a transit center for the park was going to be located in Ashford and so the property in question might become more valuable down the road.
According to a transcript of an interview between an OIG investigator and Mr. Uberuaga, the investigator at various times said the sale sounded suspicious to him because of the way it was handled, and he specifically asked if the transaction wasn’t simply “a kickback.”
“I can see how you got to where you’re at,” Mr. Uberuaga replied, “but there was absolutely no business connection, no benefits, no discussion, nothing in terms of that in terms of business kickback or anything.”
A few minutes later the investigator pressed further.
“What we have a hard time understanding is how a property at an assessed value of $125,000, let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and say $40,000, let’s even give you another $60,000 for sweat equity. You’re still at double that sales price. You know, and entering into a real estate contract, while it does sound like it’s a legitimate vehicle to finance, what it suggests to me is that (redacted) couldn’t go to a bank and get a bank to finance that deal, because the property wasn’t worth that much,” he said.
“This was a speculative deal on the promise -- I don’t know if there was a promise, but on the forecast potentially that this is an area that (redacted) can develop based on contracts and awards that (redacted) wins from the mountain. (Redacted) buying from you, the superintendent. I can only tell you how this looks on its face.”
To Mr. Ruch, the message the matter sends to the Park Service's more than 20,000 employees is "that rules are meant to be bent."
Some of the aspects turned up by OIG's investigation:
* Mr. Uberuaga bought his house in Ashford in 1992 for $84,000. In 2002, he sold it to Rainier Mountaineering's Peter Whittaker, at the time the park’s only climbing concessionaire, for $425,000. The property’s assessed value was $122,400, according to the Seattle Times.
* The purchase was not at arm’s length; Mr. Uberuaga held the note. So while Rainier Mountaineering was operating on the mountain and bidding for a new contract, Mr. Uberuaga was taking monthly payments from the company while also overseeing the concessions deliberations.
* Although Mr. Jarvis, Mount Rainier’s superintendent in 2002, early that year removed Mr. Uberuaga from any concessions dealings due to the fact that his children worked in various capacities for Rainier Mountaineering, that recusal did not surface in the OIG’s investigation into Mr. Uberuaga’s real estate deal, nor was a similar recusal letter written when the real estate deal was struck.
* Mr. Uberuaga failed to fully disclose the real estate deal on Office of Government Ethics form. When contacted specifically about his mention of "Real Estate Contract, Fidelity Contract Services," he failed to specify that he had sold his home to Rainier Mountaineering. Also on that form, Mr. Uberuaga said he had no "agreements or arrangements" with any outside entities.
* Mr. Uberuaga's "Conflict of Interest and Confidentiality Statement" specifically asked that he "certify that I am not aware of any matter which might reduce my ability to participate in the proposal evaluation proceedings and activities associated with the participating in the evaluation review panel for the Mount Rainier National Park concession opportunity in an objective and unbiased manner or which might place me in a position of conflict, real or apparent, between my responsibilities as an evaluator or advisor and other interests." He did not mention any conflicts on that form when he signed it in May 2006.
When asked to explain why he didn't alert anyone to the real estate deal before signing the statement, Mr. Uberuaga said he didn't fully understand what the document was, that he viewed it simply as a "confidentiality agreement," the OIG report stated.
While Mr. Wessels wouldn't address any specific matters tied to the investigation, he did say that, "I take these decisions very, very seriously, and I went through a very thorough vetting process for the superintendent of Grand Canyon, very, very thorough, with multiple layers and multiple layers of interviews. I did a ton of work, and I again, based on all the research that I did, and talking to a lot of folks and looking at a lot of applications, I still believe he’s the best person for this job, and I stand behind him. And that you can write.”
At PEER, Mr. Ruch laments the matter.
“It is our perception that ethical standards within the National Park Service are in serious decline during the relatively short tenure of Director Jon Jarvis, and this case fits that pattern,” Mr. Ruch said. “Not surprisingly, Mr. Jarvis declined to speak to the reporters for this article. Instead, he had NPS spokesperson David Barna issue a typically inaccurate and incredible statement: ‘Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is unacceptable.’
“It appears that Director Jarvis does not believe that rules apply to him or his inner circle.”