The Interior Department yesterday fired Teresa C. Chambers as chief of the U.S. Park Police, acting seven months after suspending her for going public with her concerns about money and staffing.
Interior officials provided no details about how they reached the decision or its timing. Earlier in the day, Chambers filed the latest in a series of legal challenges to bring about her return to the force that she headed for nearly two years. Her attorneys said they will continue fighting to get her job back.
Chambers was placed on leave with pay in December after saying publicly that her 620-member police agency, which oversees federal parkland and national monuments, was underfunded and overstretched. Officials with the National Park Service, a part of Interior, maintained that she provided an "open invitation to lawbreakers" by discussing sensitive issues.
The firing is effective today, officials said. In a letter to Chambers in December, the Park Service accused her of improperly making public remarks regarding security and budget issues.
The 47-year-old chief was the first woman -- and the first person from outside the Park Service -- to head the department in its 213-year history. Supporters launched an e-mail campaign and created a Web site, www.honestchief.com, to campaign for her reinstatement.
"While I am certainly disappointed in the actions taken today by the Department of the Interior, the public support that I have enjoyed from across the country has been overwhelming," Chambers said in a statement released last night.
"It makes me all the more determined to stay the course, to fight the good fight, and to return to the honorable position as Chief of one of the finest law enforcement agencies in the land, the United States Park Police," she stated.
Chambers has kept quiet most of the time her career has been in limbo, citing an order from the Park Service that barred her from speaking without permission. In April, however, she vowed to fight for her job even if it takes years. "The child in me still believes that truth and justice prevail and that if you do the right thing, the right thing will be done for you," she said at that time.
The trouble began in December, when Chambers said the region's parks and parkways were growing more dangerous as a result of staffing and budget pressures. She said that her force should be increased to about 1,400 officers, that she was covering a $12 million budget shortfall and that she needed more money in the next year.
Tina Kreisher, Interior's communications director, challenged those statements yesterday. Citing a report released this week by the department, she said the budget for the Park Police increased 39 percent during the Bush administration.
"We've got an acting police chief who just handled a couple of the biggest events ever -- the Fourth of July celebration on the Mall and the Reagan funeral," Kreisher said. "There were no incidents, and everything was done perfectly because they had the equipment and staffing."
Chambers has been trying to get her job back since Dec. 5, the day she was forced to surrender her badge and gun and step away from a 27-year police career. She came to the Park Police in February 2002 after leaving a job as chief of police in Durham, N.C.
She filed a complaint last week with the Merit Systems Protection Board, seeking to get her job back. Yesterday, she filed a request with the administrative law judge, Elizabeth B. Bogle, asking for immediate reinstatement. She was fired within hours of that filing.
Mick Harrison, one of Chambers's attorneys, said he would appeal Interior's action at a previously scheduled status hearing with Bogle on Monday.
"We expect to ask the judge for an emergency stay because the agency is attempting to finalize the chief's termination," Harrison said.
The Office of the Special Counsel, which looks into whistle-blower cases, also had been reviewing the Interior Department's actions against Chambers to determine whether she deserved protection from firing.
But Harrison said he received a fax yesterday from the special counsel's office saying it was, as a matter of policy, stopping its investigation because her attorneys had filed the appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board.
"There is no law that requires them to stop," Harrison said. "They should have made an exception. Why spend several months looking at something as important as this and then drop it? That's not in the public interest."
Chambers has been getting legal help from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group. The group said that filing the complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board will provide an opportunity to question top Interior officials under oath and to obtain internal documents.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called Interior's action yesterday "a preemptive strike" timed to beat Monday's scheduled hearing. He said Chambers was removed for being honest about problems facing her agency.
"The bottom line is that . . . Chief Chambers told the truth," Hoyer said. "When asked whether she had the personnel and resources to protect the parks and all the monuments, she responded accurately that she did not. . . . These are life-or-death questions and certainly the public ought to expect candid, honest responses from those we give such responsibilities."
The Park Police force includes about 400 officers in the Washington area, with the rest split between parks in New York and San Francisco.