Whistleblower in Snyder tree case moves on to a new job, wins settlement with park service

The federal government has settled whistleblower retaliation complaints from a former C & O Canal chief ranger who said he suffered years of reprisals after revealing that the National Park Service had allowed Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder to cut down 130 mature trees in a federally protected area.

The settlement with Robert M. Danno comes after he complained to the Interior Department’s inspector general and to other officials about the tree-cutting arrangement, and then experienced what he says were eight years of reprisals. The Park Service, he said, removed him from his position as chief ranger for the C & O Canal park; stripped him of the authority to carry a gun; accused him of theft, leading to criminal charges (he was acquitted); reassigned him to issue picnic permits in a park in Northern Virginia with four picnic tables; and for the past three years, threatened him with termination.

Government officials confirmed the existence of the settlement after an inquiry from The Washington Post but said they were barred by the agreement from discussing the terms.

A spokeswoman for the Park Service declined to comment other than to point to a written statement noting that an agreement had been reached and that Danno has a new job with the agency.

Danno also said he could not comment on the agreement.

In a brief interview, he said, “I hope that my experience helps the National Park Service get back on course.”

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who aided Danno and his attorney, Peter Noone, said the reprisals against the decorated 30-year ranger were the “most vicious” he has seen.

“We have seen all the types of retaliation he experienced,” Ruch said. “We just have not seen it all in one case.”

PEER also represented U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers in her seven-year fight to win back her job. Chambers was fired in 2003 after she spoke with a Washington Post reporter about budget cuts and staffing reductions.

The settlement with Danno, 54, comes after the federal Office of Special Counsel spent seven months mediating the complaints. As part of the settlement, Danno soon will report to work as a division chief for wilderness planning at the Park Service’s wilderness training center in Missoula, Mont. Danno, who lives in West Virginia, has been working for the past three years as a boundary manager at Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland while under threat of termination.

Danno, who detailed his experiences in a self-published book, wrote that his problems began in 2005 after he advised his boss, C & O Canal park Superintendent Kevin Brandt, to reject a request from Snyder to cut trees in an area where tree-cutting and brush removal are generally prohibited by federal law.

The prohibitions extend to private property abutting the park, such as the Snyder estate in Potomac, to ensure that scenic vistas are maintained and natural resources are protected.

Interior’s inspector general found in a 2006 report that the Park Service violated its own policies when it allowed Snyder to clear 50,000 square feet of mature trees and replace them with saplings. The report did not find any misconduct by Snyder.

Despite the findings, the Park Service continued to marginalize Danno, he says in his book, and eventually threatened to fire him.

The inspector general’s report said that the tree-cutting plan was approved at the highest levels of the agency and that the office of then-Park Service Director Fran Mainella had given Snyder a green light to cut the trees. The report said that the approval disregarded federal environmental laws, harmed the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and left the agency vulnerable to charges of favoritism.

The inspector general said that P. Daniel Smith, then special assistant to Mainella, pressured lower-level officials to approve the deal.

Mainella and Smith, the report said, gave federal investigators contradictory accounts about how the decision to allow the tree-cutting was reached and about discussions at a Redskins game that Mainella attended as Snyder’s guest.

The inspector general’s report said that Brandt gave investigators contradictory statements about his conversations with the Park Service director’s office. This left unclear whether he had received direction from that office or had acted on his own.

“Our investigation determined that NPS failed to follow any of its established policies and procedures . . . and even disregarded the recommendations of their own Horticulture and Advisory Review Committee,” the inspector general’s report said. The report also said that Snyder had previously offered to pay the Park Service $25,000 “as mitigation for scenic easement variance requests.”

Smith said in a 2006 Washington Post interview that he had received a letter of reprimand for “overstepping his discretion” but did “nothing tawdry.”

He also said investigators in their report misconstrued his statements about Mainella’s role. He said Mainella “was not involved about the trees.”

Mainella had declined comment at the time of the Post article, but her office released a statement saying that there would be no comment about Smith because it was a personnel matter.

Mainella is no longer with the Park Service. Smith is superintendent of Colonial National Historic Park in Yorktown, Va. Brandt is superintendent of the C & O Canal National Historical Park.

The inspector general’s report did not accuse Snyder of doing anything improper but suggested that he had access to top Park Service officials that other residents might not have. Montgomery County, which also had jurisdiction, later penalized Snyder for the tree cutting, requiring him to pay $37,000 and replant.

 
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