Lawmakers Demand That Heads Roll at National Park Service Over Harassment Scandal
Current director announces he will retire in January.
Lawmakers continued their assault on National Park Service leadership at a hearing Thursday, with members of both parties remaining unflinching in their criticism of the agency’s handling of widespread reports of sexual harassment even after learning of the current director's plans to retire.
In the second hearing investigating pervasive examples of hostile work environments at the Park Service, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee lambasted agency leaders for failing to discipline employees and improve the culture of the workforce, both in the recent past and over the last two decades since the problems were first unearthed. The panel also heard from whistleblowers who had been victims of harassment or subject to retaliation after speaking out.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the committee’s chairman, kicked off the proceedings apologizing to any young people who were tuning in for the graphic nature of the content that would be discussed.
“Some of the things we discuss at this hearing are going to be a little touchy and a little inappropriate,” Chaffetz said.
The hearing followed a series of reports from the Interior Department’s inspector general finding repeated instances of sexual harassment at various agency locations, including a particularly explosive investigation into the Grand Canyon region. Kelly Martin, chief of Fire and Aviation Management at Yosemite National Park, was visibly shaken as she recalled incidents of individuals watching her shower through a window dating back to 1987.
As indicated by Chaffetz at the outset of the hearing, April Slayton, an NPS spokeswoman, confirmed agency Director Jonathan Jarvis will retire in January. Jarvis’ term is set to conclude in January anyway, but Slayton said it will mark the end of his 40 years in federal service. Some lawmakers called on Jarvis to retire immediately, though Slayton declined to respond to those demands.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member, criticized NPS for failing to uphold its zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment.
“No employee in the federal civil service should ever feel afraid to come to work,” Cummings said.
Lawmakers directed their complaints toward Michael Reynolds, NPS’ deputy director for operations, who repeatedly conceded the agency had a long way to go and must improve its culture. Cummings told Reynolds NPS employees are “laughing at you” for the agency’s unfulfilled promises to clean up shop. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said increased oversight was “desperately needed,” while Chaffetz implored the official to show him examples of implementing a zero-tolerance policy.
“We want to become a model agency, we will become a model agency,” Reynolds said. “I share your disgust.”
Reynolds identified the steps NPS leadership has already implemented, including new leadership at problem regions, mandated harassment training, equal employment opportunity officials reporting directly to the director and a 14-day deadline for investigating reports of harassment. NPS previously announced the creation of a hotline for employees to report harassment and a “prevalence survey” to “establish a baseline” of just how deeply rooted the problem is. To some, however, those measures were insufficient.
“You have a fact pattern of someone spying on someone when they are taking a shower,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. “You don’t need a policy change and a new memo, you need a pair of handcuffs and trip to the sex offender registry.”
Chaffetz added he was “tired of hearing about surveys” and demanded more concrete action.
Reynolds admitted at some regions no employees have been fired, but said disciplinary action is “under way.” Asked whether the burdensome removal process was to blame for the apparent lack of accountability, Reynolds said he did not want to “cop out by blaming it on the system.” In a previous hearing, Jarvis asked for Congress’ help in easing the removal of malfeasant employees, calling the current process “a significant problem.”
The system was exactly what Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., blamed, saying NPS’ issues were prevalent throughout government.
“This is an important hearing,” Mica said. “This is to the core of the problem we have across the federal government.”
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., requested Chaffetz and Cummings send information on the ongoing issues at NPS’ Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and other regions to the transition teams of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, so the next administration would be aware of them. She advised the future administration to start “lawyering up” with personnel experts so they could remove problem workers.
Both Martin, the Yosemite employee, and Brian Healy, the fisheries program manager at the Grand Canyon, said they feared reprisal for speaking out at the hearing. Lawmakers assured the witnesses they would be watching carefully to ensure no retaliation occurred.