WASHINGTON, DC, July 24, 2017 – A national park superintendent repeatedly touched a female employee against her wishes, routinely made inappropriate comments, violated a number of rules relating to safety, alcohol, and gratuities, and failed a polygraph, according to an Interior Office of Inspector General (IG) Report of Investigation posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite these multiple violations and a referral for criminal prosecution, the superintendent received a cash bonus and was transferred at full salary to a larger park, a move the National Park Service (NPS) explained through media “message points” by saying that this “employee has made a substantial contribution to our work.”
Until this March, Jorge Acevedo was the superintendent of De Soto National Memorial, a 25-acre park commemorating the Spanish explorer’s 1539 Florida landfall. Forwarded emails describing his harassment of female staff prompted the NPS Southeastern Regional Office to call in the IG to investigate.
The IG confirmed that for months Acevedo initiated unwanted personal contact with a female staff member, including hugs, lingering handshakes, and repeatedly invading her personal space by, among other things, lying prone on her desk while she was trying to work. He also frequently made inappropriate comments about her appearance despite repeated requests to stop. Acevedo initially denied the incidents took place but failed a polygraph test and later admitted he had violated NPS’ sexual harassment policy.
“What a creep,” remarked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that a cursory background check would have revealed that he engaged in similar behavior before being promoted to De Soto. “This guy often announced to his beleaguered staff that because he was superintendent he could do whatever he wanted – a syndrome known in the agency as ‘superintendent personality disorder.’”
Not only did Acevedo believe that he could set aside rules, but the IG established that he often did. The report, which PEER obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, found that he mishandled park receipts and violated safety rules governing gunpowder used in historical reenactments and prohibitions on alcohol use in the park, and improperly accepted gifts from park volunteers in exchange for having a pad constructed in the park for their RV. The IG presented his gratuities violations to the U.S. Attorney, who declined prosecution. The IG then sent their report to Acting NPS Director Michael Reynolds.
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Acevedo is now “Partnerships Manager” at his previous salary for the complex of parks including Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Before this lateral transfer, he also received a $1,000 performance bonus. NPS talking points issued to staff said Acevedo “made a substantial contribution to our work” and deserves a “respectful [work] environment.”
“If, as the Park Service claims, there is zero tolerance, then why aren’t these firing offenses?” ask Ruch, arguing that the “message points” praising Acevedo re-victimized his victims. “Instead of zero tolerance, the Park Service accords double-digit tolerance to its managers.”
In June, two months after the Acevedo transfer, Reynolds testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee boasting about his efforts “to bring a culture of transparency, respect, and accountability” to the NPS.