Park Police chief prepares to fight firing
The chief of the U.S. Park Police is prepared to fight efforts to fire her, saying that the government is violating her First Amendment rights and the federal Whistleblower Protection Act, her lawyer said Friday.
Chief Teresa Chambers was notified in an eight-page letter Thursday that the National Park Service intends to remove her from command of the 620-member force. Chambers was put on administrative leave after telling news outlets on Dec. 2 that her agency needs more money and is facing personnel shortfalls.
Peter Noone, one of two lawyers representing Chambers, said the government's action is "inappropriate and excessive."
"It's early in the game," Noone said. "However, my initial reaction is they violated her First Amendment rights and violated the Whistleblower Protection Act."
The government's notice, called a "proposal for removal," describes the official charges against Chambers for the first time. Noone declined to discuss them, but said the notice includes more than five charges against Chambers having to do with her Dec. 2 comments, as well as actions that pre-date those comments.
"They took the kitchen sink approach: throw enough stuff against the wall to see what sticks," Noone said.
The government gave Chambers seven days to reply to the notice, but Noone has requested an additional 15 days. He said he is prepared to take the case to the Merit Systems Protection Board or the Office of Special Counsel if the Park Service does not reverse its position.
After Chambers made her comments, Don Murphy, the Park Service's deputy director, said she broke two federal rules: one barring public comment about ongoing budget discussions, the other prohibiting lobbying by someone in her position. However, Park Service spokesman David Barna said lawyers needed to research exactly which laws, if any, Chambers broke.
Barna said Friday that lawyers have completed their review but he declined to comment on the charges against Chambers.
Barna acknowledged the Park Police is stretched thin because the agency's responsibilities have increased in recent years from its original mission of guarding the National Mall and federal monuments.
Barna said a congressionally mandated study of the Park Police found that 15 percent of what the agency now does is beyond its original mission. Based on that study, Murphy is completing an assessment of the Park Police's roles, resources and staffing needs, which will be delivered to Congress in January.
"We're really trying to tighten up and define what we're supposed to be doing before we ask for more money," Barna said. He claimed that Chambers made premature comments because the assessment is not yet complete.
But the Park Service's effort to fire Chambers is not going over well with some members of Congress.
On Friday, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., sent Park Service Director Fran Mainella a letter asking for specific information on the reasons for Chambers' termination. He questioned why the Park Service is only now taking action against Chambers if her performance was of concern prior to her Dec. 2 comments. He added that he plans to ask relevant congressional committees to examine the matter further.
"The actions of the National Park Service to date dealing with Chief Chambers have greatly undermined the public's right to know about their own safety and the safety of their families," Hoyer said. "In addition, it has sent a chilling message to other public safety officers that truthfulness and candor in informing the public and the Congress of dangerous shortcomings in our domestic defenses will not be tolerated. This is a tactic of a totalitarian society and undermines our nation's and community's efforts to ensure the public safety."
Rep. James Moran, D-Va., who sits on a congressional appropriations subcommittee with oversight of the Park Service, believes firing Chambers is a "gross overreaction," said spokesman Dan Drummond.
"The fact of the matter is the Park Police isn't doing itself any favors with the handling of this," Drummond said.
Drummond said any good federal manager would express the kind of concerns Chambers had about staffing and funding levels.
"The federal government is for the public and the American people need to know that the people who manage agencies can speak freely," Drummond said. "If she can't tell the truth to the public, who can?"