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Park Service chief apologizes for unethical behavior

Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
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This post has been updated.

It came a little late, but National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis has apologized for unethical behavior that he was investigated for last year.

The behavior was connected to a book about national parks he wrote for a nonprofit organization that has a cooperating agreement with the agency. The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) said he had the book published without getting approval from the department’s ethics office.

Jarvis received no pay for writing the book. It was published by Eastern National, a nonprofit that operates stores in many parks.

“We found that although Eastern National did not pay Jarvis to write his book, he did ask that any ‘royalty’ he would be due as the author go to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that fundraises for NPS, and that the book’s copyright be filed in his name so that he could later donate it to the Foundation,” the IG’s office wrote in a report dated Feb. 25. “In addition, Jarvis approved Eastern National’s use of NPS’ ‘arrowhead’ logo on the book’s cover, believing that one of the nonprofit’s two agreements with NPS allowed this; neither did, however.”

In an email to employees sent on the Friday afternoon before the long Memorial Day weekend, Jarvis said: “I made an error in judgment for which I want to apologize. I wrote a book to celebrate the National Park Service’s Centennial without appropriate appreciation and regard for my responsibility to follow established processes, including consulting the Department of the Interior’s Ethics Office, before it was published. I have been held accountable and I have learned a valuable lesson.”

That lesson apparently took time to sink in. “I failed to initially understand and accept my mistake,” Jarvis wrote. “That was wrong.”

Yet, the IG report indicates Jarvis “knew he risked ‘[getting] in trouble’ by not seeking advice on his book from the Ethics Office.” Jarvis gave Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a copy of the book with a note that said he wrote the book on his own time “so there are no ethics issues”; “no” was underlined.

The Jarvis case and others were discussed last week at a House hearing, where the Interior Department was criticized for a number of ethical issues.

“There is pervasive perception” among employees that they could be punished for reporting wrongdoing, Mary L. Kendall, the department’s deputy inspector general, told the Natural Resources subcommittee on oversight and investigations. “We often learn that management makes more effort to identify the source of a complaint than to explore whether the complaint has merit.”

“DOI does not do well in holding accountable those employees who violate laws, rules and regulations,” she added. “. . . The failure to take appropriate action is viewed by other employees as condoning misbehavior.”

Jarvis was disciplined, as Michael Connor, the deputy interior secretary, outlined in a Feb. 23 memorandum to Kendall. That was three months after a Nov. 19 IG report — an advance, internal version of the public February document on its investigation of Jarvis, but within the time the IG allowed department officials to respond.

Jarvis received a written reprimand, he was dismissed as manager of the ethics program and he is required to attend monthly ethics training.

In response to Kendall’s criticism, the department responded with a statement that said it is “committed to promoting a culture of high ethical standards across its bureaus. The Department provides employees with strong ethics training and we take all allegations of possible ethical lapses or other misconduct seriously.”

Ironically, Jarvis was manager of the Park Service’s ethics program when the book, “Guidebook to American Values and Our National Parks,” was published.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, raised questions about the Jarvis apology. “This apology,” Ruch said, “coming months after the facts, suggests that it is not a voluntary act but was ordered from above.”

The apology comes as the agency pursues a controversial plan to allow recognition of Park Service donors in a way that looks like corporate advertising. Park posters feature logos for Budweiser, American Express, Disney and other companies. The Government Accountability Office published a picture of a Park Service car with advertising for Subaru.

“Beyond his personal misconduct, the episode illuminates the potential array of ethical problems posed by having Park Service employees, down to the superintendent level, involved in fundraising and acting as fundraisers — as Mr. Jarvis proposes,” Ruch said. “Our concern about both his book and his new fundraising plan is that they cheapen the Park Service brand but yield nothing in return.”

Read more:

[Park Service and corporate advertising, a dangerous mix]

[Yosemite National Park, brought to you by Starbucks?]

[How many of the 411 national parks have you been to?]