A regional director for the National Park Service, desiring "nicer" experiences on his travels, ran up nearly $11,500 in personal travel that he billed the Park Service for, and also collected nearly $6,000 in pay and per diem on some of these travels while not working, according to the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General.
Between 2011 and 2015, Michael A. Caldwell, the agency's Northeast Regional director, rented bigger vehicles than he should have to bring friends on some of his travels, covered lodging costs of personal guests, was reimbursed for mileage "that he never drove," rented an SUV for "an official trip two days before his official business was scheduled to start," and also "spent a day driving the SUV 450 miles out of the way for unofficial purposes," the OIG's report said.
"Caldwell admitted during his interviews that he had taken these trips and that he had knowingly violated federal travel regulations. He said that in doing so he had taken advantage of his official positions, first as a GS-15 deputy regional director and then as a member of the Senior Executive Service. He said he deserved, at minimum, a suspension," the OIG's report released Thursday said, adding that the case had been submitted to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis for disposition.
The case report didn't indicate whether Mr. Caldwell made restitution. But in the seven-page report (attached below) he was very forthcoming in admitting to the allegations made against him, stating that his travel vouchers had been "tainted and fraudulent.”
More so, he told the investigators that "he had arranged his official travel to suit his personal travel plans. He admitted that he was not trying to save the government money on his trips and was instead trying to have 'nicer' experiences. He said that if everyone in the government worked the way he did, 'we wouldn’t get anything done.'"
Park Service officials in Washington said Thursday evening that the matter was under review.
"The leadership of the National Park Service appreciates the Office of Inspector General for investigating this case and recognizes the importance of independent investigations in situations like this. The National Park Service is committed to creating a more accountable and responsible culture at all levels of the organization, particularly among its leaders," Tom Crosson, the agency's chief spokesman, wrote in an email.
"The OIG’s findings related to Mr. Caldwell’s actions are very serious and the National Park Service is in the process of considering disciplinary action against Mr. Caldwell that is consistent with due process," he added. "In the interim, the National Park Service determined that it would be in the best interest of the organization to temporarily reassign him to duties outside of the regional office, while disciplinary action is considered.
"It is unfortunate that these actions have called into question the judgment of a leader with an otherwise strong record of public service," Mr. Crosson said.
During his reassignment, Mr. Caldwell will work under the Park Service's deputy director, Mike Reynolds, said Mr. Crosson, although he didn't know specifically what the regional director would be doing. Pending his reassigment, the regional office will be run by its deputy directors, he said.
The Northeast Region encompasses more than 80 units of the National Park System, including Acadia National Park, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Shenandoah National Park, and Valley Forge National Historical Park, as well as 21 National Heritage Areas,
The investigation was launched in March after allegations were made that Mr. Caldwell had traveled to Cape Cod National Seashore "under the guise of official business when in fact he went there on vacation." The investigators also determined, and the regional director acknowledged, that he accepted free housing in a rental cottage owned by a Park Service employee, a violation of federal regulations that both prohibit supervisors from accepting gifts from subordinates and subordinates from giving their supervisors gifts.
Along with confirming the allegations against Mr. Caldwell, the OIG investigators concluded that the Park Service poorly monitors its employees' travel expenses. Peggy O'Dell, who was deputy director for operations before retiring from the agency this past summer, was supposed to approve travel vouchers of regional directors, the report said. However, she had an assistant handle that task on her behalf, the report said.
"O’Dell said she had taken it on faith that the travelers who submitted their authorizations and vouchers to her were being honest, and she acknowledged that the NPS process for reviewing these documents could be improved," the investigators wrote. "She said that one way to improve the process would be for the regional directors to post their leave information in a clearly visible location. She also said that NPS needed to address the practicality of making high-level managers such as herself responsible for reviewing every travel voucher for multiple direct reports."
The bottom line, Ms. O'Dell told the investigators, was that "that the entire process depended on travelers telling the truth when submitting their travel documents."