Park Service director in hot seat among accusations of widespread sexual harassment at the agency.
Add the National Park Service to the list.
At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis joined the growing ranks of agency heads across government asking for more firing authority.
“I would certainly appreciate the willingness of the committee to work with us on some reform in this area because I do think it is a significant problem,” Jarvis told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which spent the majority of the hearing hounding the director for his agency’s failure to deal with employees accused of harassment.
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.
Jarvis told the committee NPS had not terminated anyone as a result of the findings, lamenting the burdensome rules he must follow.
“It’s almost impossible to fire a federal employee,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. Protecting civil servants from political maneuvering is a worthy goal, he added, but “it’s gone far beyond that in covering for people who haven’t done a good job.”
The first potential firing at NPS could be Jarvis himself, with lawmakers questioning his leadership after he was cited for an ethics violation for privately publishing a book celebrating national parks (even though he pledged to give the proceeds from the book back to the parks from the outset).
“I’m not sure you need to be in this position,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member.
Jarvis apologized for his violation and said he had received appropriate punishment, including having his role as the NPS’ top ethics official stripped and attending ethics training.
“I was held accountable for my mistake,” Jarvis said, later adding, “I think the fact that I am being disciplined shows no one is exempt in this agency.”
Still, lawmakers and the IG’s office alike accused the agency of neglecting to appropriately discipline managers across its offices.
“I am continually surprised by the variations of misconduct brought to our attention, “ said Mary Kendall, Interior’s deputy IG. “Unfortunately, misconduct by those few receives notoriety and casts a shadow over the entire department.”
Jarvis acknowledged there may be a pervasive problem with sexual harassment at the agency, but said he has taken steps to address the issue. He has launched a “prevalence survey” across NPS to allow employees to anonymously report if they had faced harassment in the workplace.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the committee’s chairman, said Jarvis was first alerted to accusations of sexual harassment by his employees in 2012 and took no action to address the situation. Chaffetz said one employee facing three allegations of misconduct should “probably be in jail,” and yet he still worked at NPS.
“I have a daughter and a daughter in law about to enter the workforce,” Chaffetz said. “I don’t want them to go and deal with the scum that works at your agency.”
The chairman expressed an openness, as he has several times in the past, to limiting the barriers that prevent federal agencies from firing its workers.
“If we’re going to do right by federal employees,” Chaffetz said, “we’re going to have to have a change.”
Kendall disagreed with the need for reform, saying the failure to discipline stems from a failure to take “progressive discipline and documentation.”
“I do think it is something good managers do do,” she said.
Still, Mica floated pushing for an executive order to compel agency heads to better document malfeasance to ultimately ease firings. Jarvis joined leaders at the Secret Service, Veterans Affairs Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Drug Enforcement Agency in asking Congress for more authority in removing employees in recent years. To date, Congress has only made good on VA’s request.