Editor's note: This updates with NPS response to the investigation.
In the weeks following the rise of allegations of a long-running chapter of sexual harassment in Grand Canyon National Park, another park's superintendent failed to act on similar allegations, according to a federal investigation.
The case out of Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Georgia highlights both the workforce behavior that goes on in some parks as well as the dilemma National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis faces in demonstrating to his workforce that under his announced zero tolerance policy against harassment, "appropriate disciplinary action (will be) taken if any allegations are verified," as personnel matters generally are protected under privacy laws.
At Chattahoochee River, an investigation by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General determined that the park's law enforcement supervisor inappropriately touched a division chief's thigh on two different occasions, that he "may have" done the same with a Park Service employee temporarily assigned to the park, and that the park superintendent "failed to investigate them or report them to the Human Resources or Equal Employment Opportunity offices, as required by U.S. Department of the Interior policy."
After the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia declined to pursue the matter, OIG referred the matter to Director Jarvis. According to Tom Crosson, the Park Service's chief of public affairs, officials are reviewing the matter.
"Southeast Region leadership is reviewing the report to determine appropriate management and/or disciplinary actions," Mr. Crosson said Wednesday via email. "While they are conducting that review, the superintendent is on a 120-day detail as the NPS coordinator of the South Florida-Caribbean Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit. That detail began October 17. He will work out of the CESU office at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga."
The investigation determined that the unidentified law enforcement supervisor in November or December 2014 came to a meeting in which he had not been invited, sat down next to the division chief on a bench large enough for just one person, leaned his body against hers, and, "(W)hen no one was looking in their direction, she said, he 'slipped' his right hand onto her upper left thigh, squeezed it, looked at her, and smiled. She told us that she was 'shocked and embarrassed' by this and said to him: 'That’s my leg.' She said that he did not reply, but removed his hand from her thigh."
On the second occasion, this past February 26, the division chief, the law enforcement supervisor, and three other employees were in a pickup truck heading to a work site when "the supervisor, who was sitting on her left, in the middle seat of the truck’s backseat, again 'slipped' his right hand onto her left 'inner leg' and squeezed it. She said he again looked at her, smiled, let his hand 'linger' there, and then slowly removed it. We interviewed the other employees who were in the truck that day, but no one recalled seeing him touch her. Three days later, the division chief wrote an email to herself documenting the incident. She said that she also spoke to her coworker, the CHAT manager, about what had happened."
In an initial interview with the OIG investigator, the law enforcement supervisor initially said he didn't recall either incident, and then "denied touching her."
"During our second interview, which took place on June 22, 2016, the supervisor stated at first that it was 'possible' that he touched the division chief inadvertently during the truck ride in February," the OIG report stated. "He said that he was a 'friendly' person who touched 'people’s shoulders, arms, and legs,' and so he 'could have grabbed her leg.' Later in the interview, he acknowledged touching her just above the knee with his hand while they were in the truck, but stated that he did not squeeze her thigh and that the touch was friendly, not sexual. He continued to maintain that he did not remember the 2014 incident."
The matter reached the OIG when a regional law enforcement officer who was serving as acting superintendent at Chattahoochee learned of the two incidents and referred the matter to the Park Service's Office of Professional Responsibility, which in turn referred it to OIG.
The OIG investigation also determined that while the division chief told the park superintendent in mid-2015 that she had been harassed and inappropriately touched by the law enforcement supervisor the year before, the superintendent told the investigators that "he took no action because she did not wish to make a formal complaint. He said that he had the 'impression' that a victim had to 'put it down on paper' before he could take action. The superintendent also said that he did not recall talking to the supervisor about the incident or documenting it during the supervisor’s evaluation."
In the OIG report the investigating agent noted that "NPS and DOI policies do not require a victim of alleged sexual harassment to file a 'formal' complaint before a supervisor can investigate the allegation and address any misconduct. We reviewed the CHAT superintendent’s training records and found that he completed mandatory 40-hour supervisory training, which covers appropriate supervisory response to harassment allegations, on September 3, 2015, and May 18, 2016."