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Chief ranger sues National Park Service alleging sex discrimination, retaliation

Michelle Schonzeit was passed over twice for men with less experience; her husband also claims reprisals.

Michelle Schonzeit, chief park ranger for Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, with her husband, Lt. Simeon Klebaner of the U.S. Park Police. Schonzeit is suing the park service for sex discrimination. (Michelle Schonzeit)
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A chief ranger for the National Park Service in Philadelphia, thought to be the highest-ranking female law enforcement official in the department, sued the Park Service in federal court Friday, alleging sexual discrimination in its treatment of her and retaliation against her when she complained that less-qualified men were being promoted over her. The suit is the latest accusation of mistreatment of women in the Park Service, which congressional critics have said fostered a culture of sexual harassment.

Michelle Schonzeit, 36, is the chief ranger for Independence National Historical Park, home to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where she oversees 35 armed rangers, 25 dispatchers and dozens of privately contracted armed security guards. But she lives in Maryland, with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, and took the job in Philadelphia only after she was passed over in 2015 for head ranger at the Camp David presidential retreat, allegedly for a far less-experienced ranger, according to her suit filed in federal court in Washington. She was pregnant with her daughter at the time, her attorney David P. Weber said, and the child is cared for during the week by Schonzeit’s father and her husband, a lieutenant in the U.S. Park Police.

Schonzeit said that when she asked the superintendent at Camp David why she wasn’t selected, he told her, “I have hired women in the past, and I do not believe women should be in law enforcement leadership positions,” her lawsuit states.

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Then last year, when Schonzeit applied to be chief ranger of the National Capital Region, she was denied in favor of a ranger from Gettysburg National Military Park who initially wasn’t even eligible to apply for the job until the process was changed, according to the suit. That ranger was also implicated in a recent report from the Interior Department’s inspector general alleging criminal violations by the superintendent of the Gettysburg park for filing false travel vouchers and taking 27 trips financed by a private foundation, Schonzeit’s suit claims.

Schonzeit’s suit names Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Deputy Secretary David L. Bernhardt as defendants, as heads of the department overseeing the National Park Service. Zinke has resigned, effective at the end of this month. Bernhardt will take his place, President Trump has said. Last year, Bernhardt sent an email to all Interior employees saying that “it is important for you to know that reports of misconduct are taken seriously and that action is taken in a timely manner when appropriate.” He discussed some high-profile misconduct cases, including unwanted sexual advances by the chief ranger at Canaveral National Seashore, and said, “We will hold people accountable when we are informed that they have failed in their duties and obligations.”

Weber sent an email to Bernhardt in July noting the problems with Schonzeit’s two failed attempts at promotion and the alleged retaliation against her when she filed a supposedly secret complaint. Bernhardt did not respond. Bernhardt also did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. A spokesman for the National Park Service referred inquiries to the Interior Department. A spokeswoman for Interior said that the department “does not comment on pending litigation” and that “Interior takes all claims of discrimination and retaliation seriously” and is “committed to protecting all employees from discrimination and retaliation.”

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Schonzeit has been a park ranger since 2004, and Weber believes she is “the highest-ranking female law enforcement official in the entire National Park Service.” Many park rangers receive law enforcement training, particularly since the U.S. Park Police operate in only three areas: Washington, New York and San Francisco.

In 2015, Schonzeit was the acting chief ranger at Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, where Camp David is located, as an acting GS-12 employee. But when she applied for the permanent job, a man at the GL-9 level with less than two years with the Park Service and no supervisory experience was given the job. Despite the superintendent allegedly telling her that women were not suited for law enforcement leadership, Schonzeit did not complain and instead took a job in Philadelphia while pregnant, Weber said.

In October 2017, Schonzeit applied for the chief ranger post for the Washington region. She was then a GS-14 employee, and the job was posted for GS-14. But then U.S. Park Police Chief Robert MacLean informed Schonzeit’s husband, Park Police Lt. Simeon Klebaner, that Gettysburg ranger Jeremy Murphy was already selected for the job, even though he was only a GS-12 and had supervised only three rangers at Gettysburg, according to the suit. Klebaner has since been subjected to “prohibited reprisal” for revealing the conversation, the suit claims. MacLean did not respond to a request for comment.

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The chief D.C. ranger job posting was withdrawn, then reposted for employees at GS-13 or GS-14 levels, enabling Murphy at GS-12 to apply, the suit states. This happened even though the Office of Personnel Management had prohibited such “career ladder” appointments, meaning a position advertised at two different ranks. Murphy got the job. Schonzeit “was not selected because she was a woman,” the lawsuit alleges, and because senior Park Service management “intended to hire a man, even if this man was not as well qualified, and . . . even if this man was under criminal investigation, or participated in conflicts of interest within the NPS.”

Murphy could not be reached for comment, and the Park Service did not immediately respond on his behalf.