The Case of the Indian Trader: Billy Malone And the National Park Service Investigation At Hubbell Trading Post
At first glance, The Case of the Indian Trader: Billy Malone and the National Park Service Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post hints of a book that revolves around an incident at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Arizona.
But turn the pages and you'll quickly discover Paul Berkowitz has three stories for you: One that details what seems to be a grave injustice done to a man many describe as the last, and one of the best, of the country's true-to-life Indian traders; a second on mismanagement within one of the National Park Service's largest cooperating associations, and; a third that reveals an incredibly dark side of the National Park Service.
It is that final piece of the triangle that perhaps is the most damning of the stories. After all, many see the National Park Service as their favorite government agency, one whose employees -- Rangers! -- have wonderful jobs preserving nature and history, leading interpretive hikes, helping youngsters appreciate nature, and returning the lost or injured to safety.
But within The Case of the Indian Trader Mr. Berkowitz peels back the luminous outer skin of the Park Service to reveal a dysfunctional culture, one that by his accounts has more than a few times placed itself above the law. It is a culture that at times seems to struggle with the question of whether the ends justify the means. One that, despite findings and warnings from the Interior Department's inspector general, outwardly seems to have resisted change.
Mr. Berkowitz goes to lengths to explain this culture to help readers make sense of what went wrong when the Park Service, spurred on by the Western National Parks Association, in 2004 launched an investigation into whether Billy Malone, a long-time and highly venerated Indian trader was embezzling "millions of dollars" from Hubbell Trading Post, an authentic trading post that John Lorenzo Hubbell opened in 1878 on the Navajo Reservation. This trading post in 1967 was added to the National Park System as a national historic site, one that then-Park Service Director George Hartzog Jr. told Congress would be run as an authentic trading post, with an Indian trader who did business in the traditional manner.
In creating a portrait of both Park Service culture in general and its law enforcement mannerisms specifically, Mr. Berkowitz reaches back to the 1970s, when incidents such as a Fourth of July riot in Yosemite Valley and the murder of a ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore forced the Park Service to address "glaring deficiencies in its law enforcement program." One outcome of that self-review was creation of what became known as the "Yosemite mafia," a group of law-enforcement rangers in Yosemite that Mr. Berkowitz says became "widely credited with leading the agency and implementing many service-wide reforms and initiatives throughout the latter part of the 20th century."
But some within this "mafia" took their power and influence too far, he adds.
The humorous title proudly invoked by the group belies a darker side exhibited by many of its more powerful and influential members, lending altogether different meaning to the much-touted image of the NPS as a 'family.' Over time several of these powerful figures have variously been implicated in illegal activities ranging from trespassing and molestation, electronic eavesdropping and attempted blackmail, the use of government funds to pay off extortion attempts, the theft of government firearms, to even kidnapping and rape.
Concerns about law enforcement strategies and activities within the Park Service from time to time rise to the surface. One such occasion came to the forefront in 2002 when, after reviewing law enforcement programs and activities within the Interior Department, the department's Office of Inspector General issued a report, A Disquieting State of Disorder: An Assessment of Department of the Interior Law Enforcement. Specific to the Park Service, Mr. Berkowitz writes that the report "cited the inappropriate influence NPS management and political interests exerted over law enforcement generally and particularly over criminal investigations."
"In support of its findings," he goes on, "the OIG documented literally hundreds of incidents where managers inappropriately and illegally inserted themselves into the domain of law enforcement, obstructing investigations, destroying evidence, ordering the falsificiation of official reports, and influencing investigations to assure a desired outcome."
The root of the problems go right back to the Park Service's culture, then-Inspector General Earl Devaney told a congressional committee in January 2003.
In that testimony Mr. Devaney said he has "never seen an organization more unwilling to accept constructive criticism or embrace new ideas than the National Park Service. Their culture is fight fiercely to protect the status quo and reject any idea that is not their own. Their strategy to enforce the status quo is to take any new ideas, such as law enforcement reform, and study it to death. Thus any IG (Inspector General) recommendation or, for that matter, Secretarial directive, falls victim to yet another Park Service work group charged by their National Leadership Council to defend the status quo from those of us who just do not understand the complexities of being a ranger."
Mr. Berkowitz comes to this book particularly well-suited, as he is an insider, a decades-long Park Service employee who built a highly respected career as a special agent. It was a career derailed by his final assignment: Trying to piece together a mismanaged investigation into alleged embezzlement at Hubbell Trading Post. For in the end, Mr. Berkowitz, wary of how his findings might be handled, presented his report not to his boss but directly to the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. He also sought whistleblower status to disclose wrongdoings by others within the agency and, in the end, walked away from his career.
Concerns raised by Mr. Berkowitz ranged from Park Service special agents making false statements on an affidavit seeking a search warrant and unlawful seizure of Mr. Malone's personal property to a break in the chain of custody of evidence and a wrongful claim that there had been a theft of federal funds. There also were issues revolving around the relationship Intermountain Region officials had with WNPA officials in the matter, conflicts of interest, and a perceived rush to judgment by Mr. Berkowitz's superiors.
Additional findings -- "...inappropriate influence by management and political interests, raw incompetence, possible civil rights and other criminal violations and other serious misconduct or at least egregiously poor judgment exercised from top-to-bottom with the organization" -- led Interior's Office of Inspector General to turn the investigation away from Billy Malone and "into the conduct of both NPS and WNPA officials..."
Having been perhaps the ultimate insider in the Hubbell investigation, Mr. Berkowitz buttresses this story on the subpoenas, interviews, and investigative reports that were the glue -- and the undoing -- of the Park Service's case against Billy Malone.
The "hook" for these three stories was a belief by top administrators for the Western National Parks Association that Mr. Malone had to have been embezzling millions of dollars from them through his management style -- decidedly unorthodox by today's business standards but true to the history of Indian traders who bartered goods, sealed deals with handshakes, willfully extended credit, and kept records in their heads or on scraps of paper.
In pressing this belief, the cooperating association convinced the Park Service's Intermountain Regional Office, then commanded by Steve Martin and his deputy, Mike Snyder (who later became director himself), to shoulder the investigation at a cost that, in the end, would itself soar into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not beyond $1 million. It was an investigation that led to a deadend, with no charges brought against Mr. Malone, and no apparent discipline for those in the Park Service who had roles in the initial investigation.
The Case of the Indian Trader not only explores the cultural differences between the Navajo Nation and the white man when it came to conducting business, but it raises questions of whether there are appropriate safeguards and checks in place for the Park Service to work with its cooperating associations and, most of all, whether today's top Park Service and Interior officials are doing anything to change the agency's culture.
Intermountain Region officials have either ignored requests to discuss the Hubbell incident or cited ongoing legal matters that prevent them from speaking. However, in the book Mr. Berkowitz notes that John Wessels, who succeeded Mike Snyder as director of the Intermountain Region, was chief budget officer for the region during the investigation into the trading post operations...as well as during the OIG's follow-up investigation.
He acknowledged that prior to the Hubbell investigation, the NPS had never really scrutinized the funds the WNPA donated to the NPS or how the WNPA managed its operations at Hubbell Trading Post. Wessels speculated that one factor that may have contributed to hundreds of thousands of dollars being misspent on the investigation was that NPS investigators had "no real financial fraud training, and were way over their heads." But he added, "We screwed ourselves by putting the cart before the horse," noting that "Malone was convicted before the investigation began."
Park Service Director Jon Jarvis also has declined to discuss anything remotely close to Hubbell or Mr. Berkowitz's book. When asked whether the director could speak specifically -- and only -- to the issues of agency culture raised in the book, not the Hubbell matter, Communications Chief David Barna replied that "(T)his is an ongoing legal matter and as such, we cannot discuss any details publically."
In the end, the OIG's final report on the Hubbell investigation was never publicly released. As for the special agent who the OIG determined had "submitted false information on the search warrant affidavit and did not properly account for cash and evidence seized," the U.S. attorney declined to prosecute him "in lieu of administrative remedies."
That agent, Clyde Yee, and his wife, another Park Service employee, were moved "over the repeated objections from the OIG" at agency expense to Grand Canyon National Park, where Mr. Yee "was duty-stationed as a special agent in my old office..." writes Mr. Berkowitz.
Traveler postscript: While the Hubbell investigation was launched when Steve Martin was director of the Park Service's Intermountain Region, he moved to Washington, D.C., in February 2005 to serve as deputy director of the Park Service. Two years later he moved to Grand Canyon National Park as superintendent, and retired this past January 1. Mike Snyder, who succeeded Mr. Martin as Intermountain Region director, announced his retirement this past February rather than accept a reassignment within the Park Service.
This is the story of Billy Gene Malone and the end of an era. Malone lived almost his entire life on the Navajo Reservation working as an Indian trader; the last real Indian trader to operate historic Hubbell Trading Post. In 2004, the National Park Service (NPS) launched an investigation targeting Malone, alleging a long list of crimes that were "similar to Al Capone." In 2005, federal agent Paul Berkowitz was assigned to take over the year- and-a-half-old case. His investigation uncovered serious problems with the original allegations, raising questions about the integrity of his supervisors and colleagues as well as high-level NPS managers.
In an intriguing account of whistle-blowing, Berkowitz tells how he bypassed his chain-of-command and delivered his findings directly to the Office of the Inspector General.