The National Park Service's sordid underbelly of harassment was dissected for more than two hours Thursday by members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which heard stories of perpetrators being promoted and no one being fired for sexual harassment in the agency.
This, the National Park Service's centennial year, has been blighted by the specter of confirmed or alleged sexual harassment in Grand Canyon National Park, Canaveral National Seashore, and Yellowstone National Park. Too, there has been the aftermath of Park Service desecration of Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, where past managers dug trenches and installed boardwalks across the grounds "throughout the more than 200 American Indian sacred mounds" without performing the required archaeological resource surveys beforehand.
And during Thursday's hearing it came out that the superintendent of Yosemite National Park, Don Neubacher, was being investigated by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General for allegedly overseeing a hostile work environment in which bullying, gender bias, and favoritism reportedly were commonplace.
"It's our understanding, of the 21 individuals interviewed, every single one of them with one exception, described Yosemite as a hostile work environment, as a result of the behavior and conduct of the park's superintendent. Why isn't there immediate relief?" commmittee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz asked Mike Reynolds, the deputy director of the National Park Service called to explain to the committee how misconduct and mismanagement in the agency was being addressed.
While the deputy director responded that there was an active investigation into the matter that started in the Park Service's Pacific Region Office, Rep. Chaffetz, R-Utah, pressed him to acknowledge that a deputy director in the regional office was Mr. Neubacher's wife.
Though Mr. Reynolds said the agency "stovepiped" the investigation because of that relationship by having the Midwest Region's office handle the investigation, Rep. Chaffetz pointed to the conflict nevertheless.
"You have someone who's essentially protected and empowered by his wife. People are afraid of actually coming forward and filing complaints," the chairman said. "And one of the complaints was that the complaints were getting back to the superintendent."
Notably absent from the hearing was National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, who has announced that he will retire in January. But he was not overlooked by the committee.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Georgia, who had written President Obama earlier this year asking him to fire Director Jarvis, alluded to the director's failure to notify the Interior Department's ethics office regarding a book he was writing for a cooperating association. That misstep brought the director an official reprimand from top Interior Department officials, who also removed him from any dealings with the Park Service's ethics office for the rest of his career as director. Furthermore, he was ordered to attend monthly ethics training classes, something Rep. Hice passed off as the director having to watch "silly videos."
"Based on the actions of Director Jarvis, I think further oversight of the National Park Service is desperately needed," the Georgian said.
As the hearing moved on, the committee heard from two Park Service employees described as whistleblowers -- Kelly Martin, the chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite, and Brian Healy, the fisheries program manager at Grand Canyon. They both testified to harassment and threats of retaliation they saw and experienced in the workplace.
Committee members peppered Mr. Reynolds with questions about allegations of sexual harassment and exploitation at Yellowstone, why the former superintendent of Canaveral and her chief ranger were being allowed to work at home rather than being disciplined for workplace transgressions, and why the Park Service never took up recommendations made 16 years ago stemming from another investigation into sexual harassment in the service. Too, they expressed exasperation that some park managers implicated in wrongdoing received promotions and that Mr. Reynolds, who headed the Park Service's human relations office for two years before becoming deputy director this past August 1, couldn't recall anyone losing their job for sexual harassment.
Ms. Martin told of a fellow ranger peering through her bathroom window at Grand Canyon back in 1987, and described how she decided not to file a formal complaint against him.
"I could choose to say nothing and move on, file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, or file a criminal complaint. The perpetrator was a South Rim law enforcement park ranger. I felt shame on how to proceed because I felt there would be backlash for reporting, and I did not want this to become public knowledge to other coworkers of mine," she told the commmittee. "In the end, I decided that I did not want to be known and ostracized for filing a charge or complaint."
That individual, she said, eventually moved on to another park before eventually retiring as a deputy superintendent. Rep. Chaffetz added to the insult of how that case was handled by pointing out other incidents of voyeurisum the man was cited for.
Similar descriptions of fear of retribution and ostracization characterized the testimony of Ms. Martin and Mr. Healy, who also told of a supervisory park ranger involved in the Grand Canyon's 15-year-long ordeal of sexual harassment in the park's River District who actually was promoted to chief ranger at Curecanti National Recreation Area in Colorado.
While Mr. Reynolds talked of studies, training, and hot lines that would be employed to help move the Park Service past what time and again was described by committee members as the agency's "toxic culture" in the workplace, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said it shouldn't take such endeavors to deal with some of the problems.
"When you have a pattern of someone spying on another person while they are taking a shower," he said, referring to Ms. Martin's testimony, "you don't need a policy change, and you don't need a new memo. You need handcuffs and a trip to the sex offender register. That's what you need."
In his prepared remarks, Deputy Director Reynolds tried to convince committee members that his agency has a sound strategy for ridding its 20,000-employee workforce of sexual harassment issues, but cautioned them that "this kind of change is neither easy nor fast."
"The efforts undertaken in response to recent reports are insufficient unless we commit to a long-term plan to fundamentally change the culture of the National Park Service," said the deputy director.
Director Jarvis has been under pressure from members of Congress to effectively address and resolve management and conduct issues across his agency. In early August a bipartisan assembly of congressmen and women asked the director to provide three reports from more than a decade ago that looked into the problems so they can "understand NPS's response to sexual harassment and misconduct."
In early September, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee asked Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell to provide his committee with a briefing on "the scope of mismanagement and consevation of national and cultural resources" at the National Park Service.
Many Park Service employees themselves are concerned about the work atmosphere. Some feel that problem employees sometimes are dealt with by simply being reassigned to another park or position. In the past, the superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park was reassigned to a different office after his work computer was found to have pornography on it. Former Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga, who wanted to guide the park past its sexual harassment issues, instead was offered a transfer to the agency's Washington office before opting to retire.
In the most recent incidents at Canaveral National Seashore in Florida, both the superintendent, whose administration has been investigated three times by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General, and her chief ranger, who was accused of sexually harassing park staff, are both working offsite producing reports and plans at a cost of nearly $200,000 a year in salary and benefits.
Then there are seasonal employees who worry that due to their short-term positions with the Park Service, procedures make it impossible for them to complain about harassment. "Process takes so long and emphasizes long-term solution, and seasonal folks who complain just won't be hired by the supervisor they complained about," read one comment made on the Traveler website.
In her concluding comments, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, suggested that it might be time for a housecleaning of top management in the Park Service, and promised to send the transition teams of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton memos detailing what the committee has uncovered in the agency.
"What we've heard today are terms like toxic work culture, a closed culture. We've heard go along to get along culture, and we know that within the National Park Service there are plum assignments," the congresswoman said. "People will stay regardless of how long it takes or what they have to put up with to get to some of those crown jewel properties because they love their jobs so much.
"In some respects, that's rewarding loyalty. In other respects, it can create a toxic work culture. And it appears that the National Park Service, espeically since we've had reports of this for 16 years, and that these matters are not being adequately addressed, that perhaps promotion from within has actually hurt the National Park Service from addressing cultural systemic problems in this area," she continued. "So I will be asking the chairman and ranking member of this committee to prepare memos to the transition teams for both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to inform them of what is in the record here about what is going on at the National Park Service in terms of a toxic work culture, and how maybe it's time to get, as Mr. (John) Mica (R-New York) said, some of the rotten apples that are still in the barrel out of the barrel.
"And maybe that's going to require people who have made this career and have been looking forward to being considered for some of the very highest positions within the National Park Service, to not attain those goals because this has been tolerated. It has not been swept under the rug and now some of the people in leadership positions are just finding out about it. It has been tolerated. And it appears that people have tolerated this in order to advance their careers into the highest positions in the National Park Service. It is time to ferret out that kind of toxic culture. And either new president is going to be in a position to do that."