Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke promised "zero tolerance for any type of workplace harassment" in his department. That mandate may soon face a test.
The top-ranking official at the National Park Service, P. Daniel Smith, has apologized for behaving “in an inappropriate manner in a public hallway” in the wake of an inspector general’s investigation into an anonymous allegation that the official made a gesture involving his genitalia in front of other employees.
In a staff-wide email to Park Service employees on Friday, Smith wrote that as “a leader, I must hold myself to the highest standard of behavior in the workplace. I take my responsibility to create and maintain a respectful, collegial work environment very seriously. Moving forward, I promise to do better.”
Interior's press office did not reply to a request for comment.
What allegedly happened? As The Washington Post first reported, an anonymous agency employee wrote to Zinke in March to describe how Smith “grabbed his crotch and his penis and acted out as though he was urinating on the wall” shortly after taking office as the Park Service’s deputy director. The witness to the alleged crude gesture said it took place while Smith was telling a story to another employee at Interior headquarters, which houses the Park Service.
“I am not a prude,” the letter writer told Zinke, “but still cannot believe he was acting this out in the hallway of the NPS.” Zinke referred the matter to the department’s Office of the Inspector General, which opened a probe in March.
Since taking the helm of Interior, Zinke has pledged to root out harassment in his department. Last year, he fired four Interior employees for inappropriate behavior and has told Congress he would fire more people if necessary. The Park Service’s own internal survey has identified sexual harassment as a widespread problem within the agency, which oversees more than 84 million acres of park land through the United States.
In his apology note, Smith said he was sorry to that anonymous employee and anyone else who witnessed the incident. “Workplace culture is our shared responsibility,” Smith wrote. “We must conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects the great pride we all have for the extraordinary parks and programs we represent.”
He insisted that his behavior did not constitute sexual harassment. “I recognize that the story was inappropriate for the workplace, even though it does not rise to the level of harassment,” Smith wrote. “I am very sorry for my mistake in telling this story and any discomfort it clearly caused.”
Still, the IG has yet to publicly weigh in. The watchdog bureau has completed its report and submitted it to Interior officials but will only make it public “at the end of June,” spokeswoman Nancy K. DiPaolo said.
What does the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission say? The website of the agency, which enforces laws against workplace discrimination, defines sexual harassment as including “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” that creates “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
Elsewhere within the Park Service, Interior officials had considered reassigning seven senior executives, The Post reported in April, including Alaska regional office chief Bert Frost. Frost was a witness to the incident with Smith. For now, Frost is still the top executive in the Alaska office.
The Park Service did not add anything further to Smith’s apology. “Smith’s message to National Park Service employees speaks for itself,” NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum said.
Smith is the highest-ranking NPS employee because President Trump has still not named a nominee to run the agency after 500 days in office.
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