On his first day in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke pledged “zero tolerance” for sexual misconduct. The acting National Park Service chief testified to Congress in June that he’s bringing a culture of “transparency, respect and accountability” to a workplace he acknowledged is often hostile.
But the Park Service recently gave a new job and a performance bonus to a national park superintendent in Florida whom investigators found made unwanted advances to a woman he supervised — with hugs, lingering handshakes, inappropriate comments about her appearance, and sitting or lying on her desk while she was trying to work. Investigators said he also harassed another woman who no longer works at the park.
Then, the Park Service issued a one-page set of talking points for media inquiries.
The talking points, obtained by The Washington Post, instructed staff to praise the superintendent, Jorge Acevedo, for making “a substantial contribution” during his four-year tenure at De Soto National Memorial, a coastal park near Bradenton.
Acevedo has served since March as partnerships manager at the Tuskegee Airmen and Tuskegee Institute national historic sites and Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, a consortium of Park Service properties. He is no longer supervising employees but kept his $82,000-a-year salary, according to an agency official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel issue.
Just before his transfer, the official said, he received a $1,000 cash bonus.
When interviewed by investigators, Acevedo denied the allegations and said his staff perceived his actions differently than he intended them.
The case was investigated by the inspector general’s office for the Interior Department, the Park Service’s parent agency, and detailed in a March report that was not made public.
The report, as well as the talking points, were initially obtained by the environmental watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which provided them to The Post.
Acevedo, through a Park Service spokesman, declined to comment, and he did not respond to an email or a message left on his cellphone. Agency spokesman Tom Crosson declined to discuss Acevedo’s transfer, citing “ongoing personnel actions.”
Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, blasted the agency’s handling of the case, saying it “perpetuates a culture of impunity.” He said by issuing the talking points, the Park Service “re-victimized the victims and implied that they were not as valuable to the agency.”
The case comes as the agency confronts a string of episodes of sexual misconduct disclosed more than a year ago by Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall’s office. The revelations — at Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, the Grand Canyon and Canaveral National Seashore — have led to congressional hearings and a survey prepared by the outgoing Obama administration of the Interior Department’s 70,000 employees to gauge the extent of the problem.
House lawmakers, particularly Republicans, scolded Obama’s Park Service chief for failing to fire or move quickly to discipline managers and employees following findings of misconduct, and criticized a lack of accountability at the top.
A year later, Trump’s administration is still dealing with sexual harassment and how to punish it, even though Zinke promised to take a hard line on ethics, warning employees in an email on his first day, “I expect us to do better.”
The administration has sent mixed signals on how aggressively it intends to address the problem.
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said he planned to start disciplinary action this week, including suspensions and firing, against as many as a dozen employees after an inspector general investigation found six women in the park’s maintenance division were subjected to derogatory comments, verbal abuse and unequal treatment by male employees. The action was first reported by the Associated Press.
It took 19 months for the Park Service to fire a boatman who investigators in an inspector general report disclosed propositioned female employees at the Grand Canyon — one of multiple male employees who propositioned, groped and bullied women for years on river trips.
The boatman had remained an employee of the park since the case went public. The other men resigned or retired, including the former park superintendent, who an IG investigation found had ignored the women’s complaints.
He was first offered a job transfer to the agency’s Washington headquarters.
The chief park ranger at Canaveral, another coastal Florida park next to the Kennedy Space Center, worked from home with full pay for more than a year after investigators disclosed a pattern of unwanted advances, attention and inappropriate remarks he made to multiple female subordinates. The officer, Edwin Correa, left the Park Service in May, officials said — months after he was charged by local police in one case. He and his lawyer declined to comment.
Shortly after taking office, Zinke moved quickly against a senior executive in charge of the Interior Department’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security, who retired after investigators disclosed in an IG report that he had sexually harassed six women who worked for him.
The Canaveral superintendent, Myrna Palfrey, was put on a nine-month temporary reassignment after three investigations of park mismanagement, one of which found she retaliated against a whistleblower who reported it.
In May she returned to her duties as superintendent. The Park Service said no wrongdoing on her part was found. Palfrey, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Investigators became aware of the misconduct at De Soto after the employee wrote Acevedo a detailed email in which she listed his alleged indiscretions and how they were hurtful to her, according to several people who have seen it. He then forwarded the email to his superiors, who turned the case over to the inspector general.
The woman repeatedly asked Acevedo to stop, but he wouldn’t, the inspector general’s report said. After Acevedo drove past her home, she told him when she confronted him that this was “creepy” and “stalker” behavior, according to the report.
Acevedo also violated other federal rules, passing beer to volunteers in the park, improperly accessing gunpowder used in historical reenactments and staying at the home of park volunteers he later rewarded by having a parking pad built for their trailer, investigators found.
He said he had exempted the park from the no-alcohol policy and denied breaking the rules on gunpowder and volunteer access to the park. According to the report, Acevedo insisted the woman try on a button-down park shirt in his presence.
She explained she knew the shirt would be too small for her and told him, but she tried it on at his insistence.
Acevedo gave a different story to investigators, telling them he acted “in the context of looking for a shirt she could wear.”
Acevedo denied any inappropriate behavior toward the woman. He told investigators he attempted to physically distance himself from her after she first talked to him about his conduct.
Park Service officials said the sexual harassment survey of employees is scheduled for release by the end of summer.