The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As National Park Service confronts sexual harassment, this dysfunctional park is Exhibit A

Playalinda Beach, part of the Canaveral National Seashore. (Craig Bailey/Florida Today)
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CANAVERAL NATIONAL SEASHORE, Fla. — This secluded beach on a barrier island off the Atlantic coast is a sunbathers’ paradise of nesting sea turtles and wading shore birds in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center.

But for rangers, visitor guides and many of the 50 employees here, working at this national park is anything but paradise.

Multiple female employees have been subjected to sexual harassment, and men and women alike to a hostile workplace for at least five years at Canaveral, government reports show. The park’s motto to describe the longest expanse of pristine shore in Florida is “the way it used to be.”

[Lawmakers charge that Park Service chief oversees a culture of sexual harassment]

The culture here became so toxic that the agency’s watchdog has conducted four investigations since 2012, an unusually high number for one of the park system’s smaller sites.

In the latest report, released in June, the inspector general for the Interior Department, the National Park Service’s parent agency, disclosed a pattern of unwanted advances and attention — along with inappropriate remarks — to female subordinates by the chief law enforcement officer. He is still employed by the park but was recently ordered to work at home.

Interviewed at his home in St. Cloud, Fla., the law enforcement officer, Edwin Correa — who was named publicly at a June congressional hearing — denied any inappropriate behavior, calling his actions “cultural misunderstandings.”

Investigators also substantiated off-color comments by another Canaveral manager, who told a woman who works for him that her peach-colored dress resembled a Creamsicle and that he could “lick it up.”

The investigations and interviews with nine current and former park employees reveal a troubling workplace culture in the remote park, which includes a nude beach and stretches 24 miles along the seashore 57 miles east of Orlando.

[Read some of the inspector general reports on Canaveral National Seashore here]

What happened here, along with explosive revelations in January of sexual harassment at the Grand Canyon and an ongoing inspector general probe of similar misconduct in at least one other park, has prompted a congressional hearing and a pointed email from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whose agency oversees the Park Service.

For years, Canaveral has been run like a fiefdom where the brass broke the rules to hire friends and relatives for jobs and contracts, punished employees who blew the whistle and mistreated subordinates they did not like, interviews and inspector general reports show.

“It’s incompetent leaders and an attitude of, ‘Hey, I can do anything I want and there’s nothing you can do to me,” said Bruce Rosel, who retired as a district manager in 2013 after 34 years at the park.

Beyond the disturbing nature of the conduct is the question of why the Park Service has done so little to discipline supervisors and take steps to establish a safe and professional workplace for its employees.

“They just allowed this stuff to go on,” said Martha Schaffer, who retired as an administrator at the park in 2013, two years earlier than she had planned, because she felt the atmosphere was so poisonous. “Why doesn’t the Park Service hold anyone’s feet to the fire?”

It’s a question the Interior Department now says it needs to address throughout the park system.

A day after Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis took a bipartisan drubbing on Capitol Hill for failing to punish wrongdoers quickly or severely enough, Jewell told 70,000 Interior Department employees that sexual harassment is “completely out of line with our values.” She has demanded action from top Park Service officials to stop it.

The Park Service has been forced to acknowledge that sexual misconduct may be part of the culture of the sprawling, male-dominated system of 412 national parks, whose first rangers at the turn of the century were former cavalrymen.

“This is a huge wake-up call for us that we have some cultural issues we need to do a deep dive on,” Michael Reynolds, the agency’s associate director for human capital, said in an interview.

“We recognize that we’ve got a fairly non-diverse history and a heavily male culture,” Reynolds said. “We’re addressing it. We hope we’ll be much healthier for it.”

Jarvis told lawmakers that because civil servants have strong rights to appeal disciplinary proceedings, taking action against them is not easy.

The Park Service has long been a decentralized corner of the federal government, where many employees work in small groups in remote areas. Men made up 63 percent of the workforce in 2015, federal data shows, and about 85 percent of the law enforcement rangers.

The agency plans to hire an outside contractor this month to conduct an anonymous survey of its 22,000 full-time and seasonal employees to ask whether sexual harassment is widespread. Face-to-face training for managers and employees will be done at every park. A better reporting system “that makes sure our employees have a safe haven” to report harassment is in development, Reynolds said.

He said officials also are interviewing experts on combating sexual harassment, including meeting in May with a team at the Defense Department, which is confronting rising reports of sexual assault.

Park officials have been aware for 16 years of sexual misconduct in the system, where a flood of complaints about harassment and gender bias in promotions at the Grand Canyon led to the formation of a task force in 1999 to address the issue nationwide. But little was done with the recommendations, which were first reported by the High Country News.

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

Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said that implementation of most of the recommendations was derailed by budget cuts and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but that they “will be revisited” now.

Until now, the Park Service has not made sexual-harassment training mandatory for all employees, limiting annual online courses to its supervisors.

Several Republican lawmakers have called on Jarvis to resign, saying he has long failed to take sexual misconduct seriously.

“He allowed this to fester,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “More than two dozen women at the Grand Canyon and Canaveral National Seashore have filed claims of harassment,” he said. “And not one perpetrator has been fired.”

At a committee hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz questions the "zero tolerance" NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis claims to have for sexual harassment within his agency. (Video: House Oversight & Government Reform Committee)

Jarvis, through a spokesman, declined requests for an interview.

The disarray at Canaveral goes beyond allegations of sexual harassment.

Schaffer, the retired administrator, recalled an unpleasant incident in which the manager cited by the inspector general in June — her longtime supervisor — demanded to see her medical records before approving sick leave for a gynecological operation, asking “what they were going to do to me,” she said.

Racial tensions are also high. The park superintendent, Myrna Palfrey, has failed to properly manage her employees, according to employees and investigators, who described a “lack of candor” in her dealings with them. Her name was not disclosed in the government reports, which were redacted, but several current and former employees complained about her leadership.

Palfrey declined several requests for comment.

The Park Service suspended Correa’s commission to carry a weapon in early May after learning of the inspector general’s findings. But he continued to work at the park for six more weeks until the congressional hearing, and was then told to work from home.

A Park Service spokesman, Andrew Munoz, said officials are “reviewing” disciplinary action against both managers. He acknowledged that, “looking back, we will have to review whether we could have taken action earlier to put [Correa] on telework.”

Canaveral is not the only park where sexual harassment and a prolonged Park Service response have been a problem.

Seven months after investigators revealed that boatmen and a supervisor at the Grand Canyon pressured female colleagues for sex on long river trips, then bullied and retaliated against some who rejected or reported their advances, some of the alleged perpetrators have retired. The others are still working in the park but have not been disciplined, a spokeswoman said.

The park superintendent at Grand Canyon, widely criticized for ignoring the women’s complaints, was offered a job transfer to the agency’s Washington headquarters but retired June 1, Jarvis said at the House hearing.

“Personnel actions … are under development with appropriate human resources and legal support,” according to a document provided by spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo.

The park has hired an outside investigator to examine allegations of inappropriate behavior that recently came to light in another division in the Grand Canyon, the document said.

At Canaveral, misconduct also went on for years.

In 2012, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall’s office documented contracting violations and nepotism at the park, where Correa and other managers violated federal acquisition rules by putting multiple small payments on government credit cards to avoid getting competitive bids for a new boardwalk, visitors center and other projects. Park spokesman Munoz said Correa was reprimanded for these activities.

Among the friends and relatives hired were two employees with criminal records.

Little had changed two years later, when investigators were back with another report on the same misconduct. Park Superintendent Palfrey, who is Hispanic, evaded investigators’ questions and accused some of her subordinates of “racially based comments” against Latinos and African Americans, the inspector general found.

Investigators described an “overall sense of dissension” among co-workers at Canaveral and questioned Palfrey’s management of her employees.

Candace Carter, a biologist who reported the nepotism and procurement irregularities, said she was mistreated in retaliation, including being whistled at by her supervisors because of her status as a whistleblower. She won a ruling in 2014 from the Merit Systems Protection Board, which also found that Palfrey misled under oath the administrative judge hearing Carter’s case.

Carter said her boss, a law enforcement official who carried a weapon, was so angry at her whistle-blowing that he grabbed her arm during a meeting of park employees and held it tightly for several seconds, she said in an interview. The supervisor was suspended for three days and later retired.

Park employees say it was this laissez-faire, hostile culture that set the tone for years of sexual misconduct.

Investigators found that last year, Correa repeatedly complimented one employee on her physical appearance, asked her out on dates and tried to engage her in conversation about sexually explicit content in movies. In 2011, he harassed another woman by repeatedly asking her out and calling her on her personal cellphone after hours, investigators said.

After the woman told colleagues, Correa and another manager went to the ranger station where she worked, ushered her into a small supply room and shut the door to discuss the matter, according to multiple employees. The woman later told colleagues that she had felt intimidated.

Last December, Correa took a park ranger he supervised to the home of a park volunteer he said needed help hanging Christmas decorations — and instead propositioned her for sex after putting his arms around her waist, pressing himself against her and trying to kiss her, investigators found.

The woman said, according to the report, that she asked the supervisor what he was doing, and he pointed toward the bed and said: “But we’re here. Why not? No one will know.”

The Volusia County state attorney is weighing criminal charges against Correa in relation to this and two other incidents involving the woman, a spokesman said.

“It comes down to Canaveral’s management and Myrna Palfrey, who has failed her employees,” one of the victims said in an interview with The Washington Post. She commented on the condition of anonymity because park officials warned her not to speak to a reporter.

“On numerous, documented occasions, she has fostered an environment of retaliation for those who speak up,” the woman said of Palfrey.

At least two other female employees were subjected to harassment by Correa, according to employees.

Correa told The Post that the women he allegedly harassed are “great people” and that he is friends with all of them. He denied any inappropriate behavior.

Correa says, however, he is angry that the Park Service did not give him a chance to apologize to the women if he had offended them, since he has been forbidden to contact them.

“If I did something wrong, don’t hit me blind-sided,” he said in an interview at his home.

The other Canaveral manager cited by investigators, also allegedly made sexually inappropriate comments to at least two employees. One of them told investigators she did not think that the comments were meant to harass her but that they made her feel “creepy and weird.”

That manager did not respond to calls left at his office and home. He first told investigators that one of the women he allegedly harassed was “delusional” and “not wrapped too tight.”

But he later said he “took full responsibility” if his remarks were interpreted as unprofessional.