By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006
A high-ranking National Park Service official improperly helped Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder broker a deal to cut down more than 130 trees on a hillside between his Potomac estate and the C&O Canal, according toa report by the Interior Department inspector general's office.
The 2004 decision should have been left to park biologists and horticulturists, who had advised against the deal on federally protected land, and should have been opened to public debate, the report says. After an eight-month investigation, the office concluded that P. Daniel Smith, then special assistant to the director of the Park Service, intervened to help clear Snyder's view of the Potomac River.
The report does not accuse Snyder of doing anything improper when he got permission to clear 50,000 square feet of mature trees and replace them with saplings. But it does suggest that he had access to top Park Service officials that other citizens might not have had.
Smith pressured lower-level officials to approve a deal that disregarded federal environmental laws, harmed the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and left the agency vulnerable to charges of favoritism, according to the unsigned report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.
Smith -- now superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park, which includes Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown Battlefield -- said in an interview that he received a letter of reprimand last month for "overstepping his discretion" but did "nothing tawdry."
"It was a legitimate request by a landowner who had a legitimate issue with the Park Service," Smith said.
Snyder issued a brief comment through a spokesman yesterday, saying he and his representatives "negotiated a fair written agreement with the National Park Service. They didn't put pressure on anyone."
In previous interviews, Snyder's representatives said he was trying to rid his property of invasive species, such as ailanthus and paulownia. He has said he spent about $100,000 to replace a once-tangled mess of trees, many of which were nonnative species or diseased, with more than 600 native saplings that will boost the long-term viability of the forest.
The Park Service's horticulturist, however, told the inspector general that clearing the area made it more likely that nonnative, invasive species would eventually flourish on the hillside and cause erosion.
The report, to be made public today, says Smith "unduly influenced the decision" by "inserting himself into the process through personal communications with Mr. Snyder, his representatives and C&O Canal officials." The inspector general referred its findings to the U.S. attorney's office, which declined to prosecute, according to the report.
Smith's job was to handle special projects for Fran P. Mainella, the Park Service director, including topics of "intense interest from the public, special interest groups, Cabinet level officials and Congress," the report says.
Mainella declined to comment, but her office issued a statement saying it would not comment on Smith's role because it was a personnel matter. The "outcome of what was done on the easement property will show it will best benefit the C&O Canal National Historical Park and best benefit the visitor," the statement said.
After joining the Park Service in 2001, Smith said, he was assigned to troubleshoot important issues, many of which came from members of Congress. "I had very broad discretion in all kinds of matters that came to the department," he said.
Smith told investigators that Mainella asked him to help Snyder after she was approached by someone at a Redskins game during the 2001-02 season, the report says. But Mainella, whom President Bush appointed in 2001, told the inspector general's office that she never intervened on Snyder's behalf and that she does not remember discussing the matter with Smith or attending a game that year, according to the report.
In an interview, Smith said investigators in their report misconstrued his statements about Mainella's role.
Smith said Mainella "was not involved about the trees." She had asked him to represent the Park Service on an earlier, separate request from Snyder in 2001 to build a ballroom on the estate he bought that year from Queen Noor, the widow of Jordan's King Hussein, for $10 million. Snyder needed Park Service approval to build the ballroom because it increased the size of the estate on an easement the agency obtained on the property in 1974. That request was approved.
The inspector general's office "got two things confused. They were two separate incidents that happened 2 1/2 years apart," Smith said.
The inspector general's report says Smith's involvement with the tree removal issue dated to 2002, when Smith called a lower-level park official to raise questions about that request.
In 2004, Kevin D. Brandt, superintendent of the C&O Canal park, negotiated a deal with Snyder allowing him to cut the trees and replace them with more than 600 native trees, such as pines.
Snyder agreed to donate an additional portion of his property to the Park Service as well as to calculate the value of his improved view. If the value of the enhanced view exceeded the value of what the Park Service gained, Snyder was to donate the difference to the federal government.
The deal outraged environmentalists and some members of Congress, who wondered whether the Park Service was in the business of selling views. After initially saying the trees were cut "by mistake," Brandt said last year that he negotiated the deal with Snyder to improve the long-term vitality of the park through the removal of nonnative species. In numerous interviews with The Post, Brandt said he never felt pressured into making the deal.
The Interior Department investigators said Brandt told them something different.
"I'm sure it influenced me," Brandt told investigators, adding that he assumed Smith was acting on behalf of Mainella, according to the report. Brandt did not respond to a request for an interview through the Park Service's public affairs office.
In the Reagan administration, Smith worked for the Department of the Interior, including as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. For part of the 1990s, he worked on Capitol Hill for the House subcommittee on national parks and public lands.
Snyder had been trying for years to get permission to remove the trees behind his house, including an offer in 2002 to donate $25,000 to the Park Service if the trees could be cut, according to government documents. The previous superintendent of the park, Douglas D. Faris, denied the request.
In spring 2004, Snyder renewed his request for permission to cut the trees. Smith said Snyder and his attorneys called him and requested a meeting, which was held over lunch at the Snyder residence.
At the lunch, Snyder said he needed help expediting his request because a geothermal heating system was being installed in his back yard, Smith told The Post. Once it was in place, Snyder said, he wouldn't be able to place heavy equipment in his back yard, according to Smith's recollection of the meeting.
About two months after the lunch, Smith said, he took about a half-dozen officials -- including Brandt and staffers from the Park Service's regional office -- to Snyder's house. "I said, 'Mr. Snyder, these are the people you will have to work with to resolve the issue,' and I never touched the issue again," Smith told The Post.
According to the inspector general's report, Brandt -- against the advice of the Park Service's chief horticulturist -- then began working on the details of the agreement with Snyder. In the rush to complete the deal, the Park Service failed to adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to consider the impact of proposed land-use decisions.
If they had, the report concludes, the Park Service probably would have discovered that the removal of the trees -- even nonnative species -- would harm the environment. That removal has caused the hill behind Snyder's house, on Park Service property, to begin eroding, according to the report.
Snyder is now trying to get county approval to shore up a retaining wall before it crumbles into the canal, Montgomery County officials said.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.