By Kimberly Kindy
Monday, October 19, 2009
The National Park Service says it is satisfied with the results of a year-long inspector general's investigation that found no criminal violations by John A. Latschar, the superintendent of one of the agency's most popular facilities, Gettysburg National Military Park.
It will not say, however, how it handled a violation of department policy that was documented in the course of the investigation -- Latschar's use of his office computer over a two-year period to search for and view more than 3,400 sexually explicit images.
An internal Aug. 7 memo from an investigator to Daniel N. Wenk, the acting director of the National Park Service, details the discovery of the images on the computer hard drive that was seized by investigators. But the office of Mary L. Kendall, acting inspector general for the Department of the Interior, omitted details of the computer probe or any mention of the violation from a 24-page report that was released Sept. 17.
"Latschar's inappropriate use of his government computer violates DOI policy," states the memo obtained by The Washington Post. The investigator forwarded the report to Wenk for "whatever actions you deem appropriate."
Wenk, through a spokesman, called the matter a "personnel issue" and would not comment on whether disciplinary action was taken.
Latschar also declined interview requests. He remains in his $145,000-a-year job.
The memo said that Latschar signed a sworn statement acknowledging "that he had viewed inappropriate pictures on his government computer during work hours" and that "he was aware of his wrongdoing while he was doing it."
The inappropriate use of office computers to view pornography has surfaced at other government agencies, including earlier this year at the National Science Foundation, where an inspector general's report led to several reprimands and the suspension of six employees. In one case, a "senior official" spent up to 20 percent of his working hours over a two-year period viewing the images, the report said.
Franklin Silbey, a former congressional investigator and Civil War preservationist, said the findings on Latschar are almost certain to inflame criticism of the superintendent, who is a popular and polarizing figure in the park system.
"People are aghast at their public findings. To learn, in addition, that they found this kind of unethical conduct and did not disclose it is inexcusable," he said.
The investigation was triggered by 17 allegations of ethical and criminal misconduct by Latschar -- largely in relation to his dealings with the Gettysburg Foundation, which operates a new visitors center and park that opened in spring 2008.
Latschar helped to create the private foundation and became well known in the park system for designing and promoting a public-private model that promised to infuse the cash-starved park with money it needed to build the new center.
The inspector general's investigation noted that Latschar said the construction project would be funded by the foundation and that no taxpayer money would be used. However, as the price tag jumped from $39.3 million to $135 million, $35 million in public financing was ultimately needed to finish construction, records show.
The report also said that Latschar planned late last year to leave his job as superintendent to take a $245,000-a-year job as the foundation's president.
An internal Jan. 26, 2009, memo, obtained by The Post, shows that during the course of the inspector general's investigation, department ethics officials stepped in, pointing out several legal obstacles Latschar would face. The memo says post-government employment laws would prohibit him from performing many job duties, including "any communication to or appearance before an employee of the United States."
As a result, Latschar dropped his planned job move, records show.
Investigators made no determination in the public report about whether Latschar's conduct was improper or unethical. Kris Kolesnik, an Inspector General's Office spokesman, said investigators are prohibited from drawing conclusions and that they must lay out facts, point by point. Kolesnik added that it is up to the department to "draw the conclusions." Kendall declined interview requests.
The Inspector General's Office would not comment on why the findings of Latschar's improper use of his office computer were omitted from the report.
Several critics of Latschar's said they were upset about the inspector general's omissions from the report but are more concerned that the Park Service has not explained whether it will take any disciplinary action against the superintendent for cost overruns, his relationship with the foundation and the latest revelations about his computer use.
"It's disturbing, but the inspector general looks for criminal activity, not indecency," said Eric Uberman, whose family has owned a Gettysburg wax museum of Civil War figures since 1962. "The Park Service will not hold him accountable."