WASHINGTON, DC, July 5, 2017 – Embezzlement, repeated violations and other malfeasance appear to be no career impediment for senior National Park Service officials, contends Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group points to two recent personnel moves where a regional director and a park superintendent were either kicked upstairs or fully restored by NPS leadership following findings of misconduct, thus continuing a pattern of unaccountability for NPS managers.
One case involves Mike Caldwell, who the Interior Department Office of Inspector General (IG) found had submitted fraudulent travel vouchers totaling nearly $18,000 while serving as the NPS Northeast regional director. On June 5th, he took over as chief of staff for the Planning, Facilities and Lands division where he will handle “key managerial initiatives/projects”, per an internal headquarters notice. As this transfer is pursuant to a confidential agreement, it is unknown whether Caldwell was disciplined, demoted from the Senior Executive Service or even whether he repaid improper reimbursements.
The other case involves Canaveral National Seashore Superintendent Myrna Palfrey. In September 2016, she was detailed to serve as a Special Assistant to the Southeast Regional Director to work on unspecified “Partnership Programs and Strategic Planning” projects while working from her home. This nine-month temporary reassignment followed a series of scathing IG reports, a sexual harassment scandal and a congressional hearing in which the lack of action by the NPS Director was a main topic. Without a formal announcement, Palfrey returned to her duties as Canaveral Superintendent sometime during the past month. The only external sign of her presence was her reemergence in park meeting minutes.
“In the Park Service, immunity for its managers appears immutable,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the only saving grace being that Caldwell was not put in charge of procurement. “Lower-level employees would be, and often are, fired for this type of misconduct. It is an utter canard that the federal personnel system makes discipline difficult. Just ask any whistleblower whether the disciplinary process offers them much protection.”
In fact, a federal judge found that Superintendent Palfrey had subjected a whistleblower to a pattern of harassment and adverse personnel actions in retaliation for reporting mismanagement to the IG. The Park Service did not appeal that ruling yet took no action against Palfrey.
Following a scandal-filled centennial year, acting NPS Director Michael Reynolds, a third-generation career NPS employee, has pledged to “fundamentally change the culture of the National Park Service.” These recent personnel postings, presumably approved by Reynolds, undercut prospects for meaningful cultural change and only reinforce field staff perceptions of ingrained cronyism within the NPS hierarchy.
“There are hundreds of honest dedicated park superintendents and other managers who suffer being tarred by this brush,” added Ruch, pointing out that no nominees have yet been named for either NPS Director or any senior Interior official with a parks portfolio. “The Park Service desperately needs a new broom to sweep its leadership ranks clean.”