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Lawmakers charge Park Service chief oversees culture of sexual harassment

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis was on the hot seat Tuesday on ethics issues. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis was confronted Tuesday by angry lawmakers in both parties for looking the other way at what they called a culture of sexual harassment in his agency.

And his critics at a tense House hearing unusual for its united front questioned whether Jarvis was even equipped to address this and other misconduct because of a recent ethics transgression of his own.

In the latest case in a string of embarrassing episodes disclosed by the Park Service’s watchdog, the chief park ranger at Canaveral National Seashore in central Florida was found to have sexually harassed women on his staff in three substantiated cases in less than two years.

[Park Service chief apologizes for breaking ethics rules]

But Jarvis acknowledged that despite a report released this week, the ranger, Edwin Correa, is still working at the park, although his commission has been removed.

“How many sexual harassments does it take to fire a federal worker?” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, bellowed at Jarvis, seated at the witness table in his green Park Service uniform.

“Three substantiated allegations and he still works there?” Chaffetz said of the ranger. “The guy should be arrested. What does that say to the women? Your leadership is lacking. You’re failing the system.”

Lawmakers scolded Jarvis for failing to fire or move faster to discipline managers and employees involved in misconduct, particularly when it involves sexual harassment. The watchdog has released three other reports in recent years substantiating allegations against Correa, including procurement violations and conduct unbecoming a Park Service law enforcement officer.

The Cape Canaveral case follows a high-profile investigation released in January that documented evidence of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment at the Grand Canyon.

[Female Park Service employees say they were groped and bullied on Grand Canyon river trips]

Boatmen and a supervisor pressured female colleagues for sex on long river trips, bullied them, then retaliated against some who rejected their advances or reported the problems, investigators found. 

The probe included incidents stretching back more than a decade. Women said the Park Service largely ignored their reports of harassment.

“Clearly, zero tolerance was not the standard at the Grand Canyon or Cape Canaveral,” Jarvis said Tuesday, promising lawmakers that “we have reinforced a message to the field on zero tolerance.”

He announced that the agency will conduct an anonymous survey of all 22,000 full-time, seasonal and temporary employees across the country to gauge their perception of harassment and whether it is widespread.

But lawmakers were not satisfied. They said the Park Service has a lack of accountability that starts at the top, where Jarvis himself once considered himself untouchable.

The inspector general found last year that Jarvis broke the rules when he failed to seek permission from the Interior Department’s ethics office to write a book for a publisher that does business with the agency.

Jarvis was stripped of his responsibility for overseeing the Park Service’s ethics program, received a written reprimand and was required to attend monthly ethics training. He told investigators during their probe, “I’ve gotten my ass in trouble many, many, many times in the Park Service by… not necessarily getting permission.”

Jarvis has apologized to his employees and was contrite before the committee, calling his actions “a mistake and I fully own it.” But few on the committee were placated.

“It seems to me you really had an utter disregard for the ethics rules,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the panel’s top Democrat.

Jarvis said he has addressed the sexual harassment problems at the Grand Canyon in part by dissolving the river tour unit where the misconduct occurred. He said some employees in the case have been disciplined, though not all. But the park superintendent, Dave Uberuaga, was not fired. Jarvis offered him a job at the Park Service’s Washington headquarters instead. Uberuaga decided to retire on June 1.

“It sounds like leadership actually condoned misbehavior at the Park Service,” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) told Jarvis, who replied, “The fact that I’m being disciplined sends a message that no one is exempt.”

“I would hardly call what’s taking place as discipline,” Hice shot back.

Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, the hearing’s only other witness, said no one has been fired in any recent cases of misconduct her office has documented. They include the former chief ranger of Yellowstone National Park, who violated Park Service housing policy by allowing 19 family members and friends to stay in his government apartment for months at a time. The ranger was transferred to superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument.

“The department does not do well in holding employees accountable who engage in misconduct,” Kendall said. “Often, management avoids discipline altogether.”

She called the Canaveral case a “a profound example of a leadership problem that [the National Park Service] has failed to address at multiple levels.”

Jarvis said repeatedly that civil servants have strong rights to appeal disciplinary action.

“Their behavior is extraordinarily disturbing to me,” he said of those employees who commit misconduct. “But I understand the rules and regulations that apply to them. I don’t have the power in most cases to fire these employees.”

Cummings was astounded that Jarvis did not know that last week the Park Service reached settlements with two of the women in the Grand Canyon case.

“Wouldn’t you want to know that?” he asked Jarvis. “You don’t know it today? What kind of management is that?”