By Bruce A. Smith
Rob Danno, the former Chief Ranger at Bryce Canyon National Park who gave Margaret Anderson her first ranger job in the National Park Service, has written an account of his whistle blowing activities within the agency.
Danno also delivered the eulogy at Ranger Anderson’s funeral, held in January at Pacific Lutheran University. He described how he had become a mentor to Ms. Anderson, and that she had followed him to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park after his stint at Bryce when he transferred there to become C&O’s Chief Ranger and senior law enforcement officer.
In addition, Danno helped mentor Margaret’s husband Eric, when Mr. Anderson became a ranger at the Antietam National Battlefield Park, where Danno also ultimately landed. In the process, Danno became a treasured family friend, and after Margaret was killed in the line of duty at Mount Rainier National Park on January 1, 2012, Danno traveled to Eatonville to help her family – and the park staff – grieve and make the adjustments necessary to carry on with their lives.
Nevertheless, few knew of the supreme irony at her funeral bubbling just beneath the surface, as Ranger Danno stood on the dais with the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and the Director of the NPS, Jon Jarvis. Danno’s book, Worth Fighting For, details corruption that reached to the highest levels of the agency, and it was nearing publication.
The full title of Danno’s book is Worth Fighting For – A Park Ranger’s Unexpected Battle Against Federal Bureaucrats and Washington Redskin’s Owner Dan Snyder, and it illustrates the events that led to the clear-cutting of 150 acres of wooded hillside within the C&O Canal Park that enhanced Mr. Snyder palatial view of the Potomac River Valley.
Although the destruction of part of the C&O’s woodlands occurred in 2005 during the Bush administration and was sanctioned by a leadership that has since been replaced by Salazar and Jarvis, the NPS instituted a campaign of retribution against Danno that continues to this day.
In an interview with the Mountain News, Mr. Danno described the events that led to writing his account of his epic attempt to uphold the mission of the NPS – to protect the natural resources of our country’s parks, unimpaired.
Danno counseled the C&O park Superintendent, Kevin Brandt, against his proposal to allow the clear cutting, who dismissed his concerns, and in fact became hostile toward him. Adding further insult to the integrity of the NPS, Brandt began giving deceitful accounts to the media about the Snyder clear-cut, stating that the clearing was part of an exotic plant management program. In response to the false statements, Danno then went to the Inspector General of the NPS, who launched a thorough investigation and found that the approval for Snyder to cut his viewscape emanated from the highest levels of the National Park Service, including the director, Fran Mainella. Amazingly, the deal was allegedly crafted while the director attended a Washington Redskins football game.
“They made the deal in secret,” Danno told the Mountain News.
Although Danno invoked official “whistleblower” status, which should have protected him from bureaucratic reprisals, Danno was removed from his job and transferred to a busy-work position in the National Capital Region of the NPS. At first he issued picnic permits, and then he was transferred to Antietam, where he did little if any meaningful work.
Despite showing up at work very day dutifully, he was abandoned by the agency he had worked hard to defend and protect. The agency was hoping that he would quit in frustration and that their public relations disaster would go away; but Danno stayed.
“I’m a real ranger guy…and I’ve been a cheerleader for the National Park Service,” chimed Danno, adding that he had been involved in many important agency projects, such as major fires, daring rescues and the wolf re-introduction program at Yellowstone National Park
Then in 2008, the agency brought trumped-up felony charges that he had stolen NPS signs and emergency response gear, which was refuted in a jury trial and Danno was acquitted of all charges in minutes.
But after his case was successfully adjudicated, the agency didn’t drop their pursuit of Danno. In 2010, with the new leadership in place who stood with Danno at Margaret Anderson’s funeral, the NPS proposed to fire Danno via administrative means using the same charges that were unsuccessfully leveled at him in court. However, the ploy has yet to be acted upon, in part due to the vigilance of the federal Merit System Protection Board.
Nevertheless, Danno lingers in a bureaucratic limbo – but he started writing his account of what has happened – and continues to unfold.
Currently, Danno is still “on ice” at Antietam, although he has been given a modest project to develop proper boundaries for the NPS sites that dot the Washington DC landscape, such as Civil War battlefields, national monuments, heritage sites, and park lands.
Worth Fighting For is Danno’s first book and it is currently #6 on Amazon’s bestseller list. It is available at www.HonorCodePublishing.com or on Amazon. Ranger Danno has given the Mountain News an excerpt to post, which follows. It describes the impact of the Inspector General’s report:
Excerpted from: Worth Fighting For
Chapter 16 – A Ranger Blows the Whistle
The report was an absolute bombshell of new information and scandal and quickly became front page news in the Washington Post and newspapers around the country. By now, hundreds of articles had been written about the case, and more followed the release of this report. The story was scandalous and greatly embarrassed the NPS. Officially called “Investigative Report: On Allegations that the National Park Service Improperly Allowed Daniel Snyder to Cut Trees onGovernmentLand,” it recounted many sordid details of the shenanigans behind the tree cutting that I didn’t know about. Most importantly, it stated that the decision to allow the tree cutting had been initiated and directed from the highest office of the agency, the director of the National Park Service!
The report detailed how Dan Smith, the director’s special assistant, had directed the tree cutting project from his position in the NPS director’s office. Smith alleged that when the director of the NPS, Fran Mainella, attended a Washington Redskins vs. New York Giants football game, she’d been asked to provide Snyder some assistance with his tree cutting request. He further alleged that Director Mainella had told that person to call him and then had assigned him to the project after she’d returned from the game.
The investigators detailed how Smith had worked through the National Capital Regional Office, C&O Canal, and Kevin Brandt to pressure and push for project completion. Smith went so far as to meet personally with various NPS officials, including Kevin Brandt and Dan Snyder, at Snyder’s Potomac mansion to hammer out details for the tree cutting. Kevin Brandt was quoted as saying that he’d interacted with Director Mainella on multiple occasions regarding the Snyder deal. Curiously, Smith made contradictory statements, saying that he’d never talked with Mainella about it.
The investigative report concluded that Smith and Brandt were not truthful and changed their stories. The report also stated that Smith’s and Mainella’s contrasting accounts prolonged the investigation and unnecessarily cost the government additional time and monies. Finally, the report noted that the NPS director stated that she’d first heard about the tree cutting when she’d read about it in the Washington Post. Indeed, she claimed she couldn’t remember if or when she’d attended a Redskins game.
The whole thing was incredible. To be true, you’d have to believe Snyder somehow found Smith in the bowels of government bureaucracy, contacted him, and gained his support for cutting the trees without Smith gaining anyone’s approval – that he simply acted on his own to allow the clear cutting of these trees.
You’d then have to believe he implemented the project, utilizing the National Capital Regional office staff, including the National Capital Regional director and the superintendent of C&O Canal, without approval or discussing this controversial project with his immediate supervisor, the NPS director.
No matter how you read it, the truth is hard to find among the statements offered in the report. The document is full of contradictions, lack of memory, insufficient detail, buck-passing, and contradictory, “he-said, she-said” language, all of which appear intentional. Even the most basic investigative facts were not established in the report, such as the actual game attended, Mainella’s schedule, who supplied the tickets, if she was Snyder’s guest, or who “the other Bush Administration officials” Mainella said attended the game with her were.
It is important to understand that investigative reports generated from the DOI inspector general have been notoriously untrustworthy, often a collaboration between the inspector general and the agency. One example is the recent notorious NPS scandal involving former NPS Supervisory Special Agent Paul Berkowitz, who became a federal whistle blower when he learned about a bad faith investigation being conducted at the Hubble Trading Post National Historic Site. In that case, the NPS special agent had so little faith that the NPS would ethically handle the findings of his investigation that he bypassed his agency chain of command, turned his report over to the inspector general, and retired. The inspector general investigated and found gross NPS mismanagement but withheld, stalled, and redacted the release of their investigative report for years before failing to hold the agency accountable.
In my case, the investigative report concluded that Dan Snyder should not have cut the trees and that the National Park Service violated law and policy and subjected the NPS to critical press coverage in giving him permission to do so, but it didn’t recommend any action against Brandt for authorizing the tree cutting and left open the possibility of punishment for providing false information to the federal investigators.
Likewise, the report didn’t directly implicate Mainella, thanks to her denials, though it was very suggestive. It established that Mainella had to confirm with her husband whether she had ever attended a Redskins football game, because she could not recall. After confirming with her husband that she had attended a game, she stated that she had no memory of anyone at the game asking anything about Snyder’s trees or the C&O Canal. The report concluded by saying the findings had been presented to the United States Attorney for Washington, D.C. of the Fraud and Public Corruption unit. They declined to prosecute, and the investigation was referred back to the NPS for appropriate action.
I couldn’t believe it. Disciplinary action was referred back to the very same people who violated the agency’s primary mission, policy, and law in the first place. The United States attorney and inspector general were in effect asking the NPS director’s office to discipline itself!
As icing on the cake, the report recounted that Montgomery County, Maryland, had fined Snyder a thousand dollars for violating the county forestation code and that Snyder had reached an agreement with the Maryland National Parks and Planning Commission to spend up to thirty-seven thousand dollars to re-plant trees in the area.
Daniel Smith more or less became the fall guy for exerting undue and inappropriate pressure on Brandt to allow Snyder’s tree cutting, but all he received was a slap on the wrist in the form of a letter of reprimand, to which he responded that he hadn’t done anything “tawdry.” Nothing happened to Brandt or any of the regional office staff. In fact, shortly after the release of the investigative report, Mainella personally presented Brandt with an award signaling her appreciation and support for him. The presentation of the award was advertised nationally through the internal NPS electronic communication system, Inside NPS, Information Gateway for NPS Employees.
As for me, while I wasn’t identified by name, the report might as well have broadcast my name on network TV and hung a big neon “whistle blower” sign on my door. The lack of discretion surprised me. I should have received protection in the form of active monitoring and oversight from the inspector general, but I didn’t.
Ordinarily, government investigators go to great lengths to protect the identity of internal whistle blowers. They want to avoid repercussions against the whistle blower and encourage future whistle blowing. Who would come forward to report wrongdoing in the future if past whistle blowers were persecuted either on or off the job?
In my case, it was too late for that kind of protection. My own behavior had guaranteed that, but the truth is, there are no secrets in the National Park Service. We’re just too small and insular an agency. Nonetheless, because of the illuminating information contained within the investigative report, I hoped the NPS would come to my defense in this second round of internal administrative charges against me. After all, the investigation confirmed that my disclosures were truthful, accurate, and instrumental in resolving the investigation, and they also confirmed that the NPS violated policy and law. I had disclosed blatant corruption and wrongdoing, something I was required to do as a federal law enforcement officer. The investigative report illuminated that my pattern of high achievement and the subsequent disciplinary problems had coincidently arisen when I became a federal whistle blower. However, it soon became clear that no one was monitoring these details or issues, and I would remain persona non gratis.
Various NPS managers, by negotiating an illegal deal to allow Dan Snyder to harm park resources, pandered to great wealth and power and violated the agency’s primary mission. Then they covered it up and lied about it. They retaliated against me for trying to tell the truth, for fighting for the resource, and lied about me as well as their own actions to build a case against me for exposing their illegal activities.
They reassigned me, suspended my law enforcement commission, took away my badge and gun, kicked me out of my office, and investigated me. They made me commute from West Virginia to Mt.Vernon each day to issue picnic permits. They did not give me a fair and honest hearing for my grievances, and they denied my rights by turning down numerous FOIA and Privacy Act requests.
Above all, they violated their oaths of office and lied under oath, and they got away with it. Nobody held them accountable. There was simply no justice available within this system – especially for a whistle blower. My sole consolation was that these organizations and individuals do not own the truth. They cannot control what others know to be true about them. Dan Snyder, the National Park Service, and the various officials and managers involved have to look themselves in the mirror every morning. I would not trade places with any of these people for a minute.
Common sense is a powerful thing, and so is that inner compass that guides us to know the difference between right and wrong. As a ranger in Yellowstone, I had championed a saying introduced to me by legendary District Ranger, Jerry Mernin, “Remember who you are and what you stand for.” I internalized it, lived it, and I still do.
In this case, I walked the talk. I am the guy who refused to violate policy and law. I lived up to my oath of office. I fell on my sword for the agency’s resources. I held management accountable. I stood tall and proceeded through the process with dignity while the government slithered in the muck, manipulating a self-serving process. I watched them cover up their actions with false testimony, under oath. I watched them expose their true character, motives, and lack of integrity. I owned this part of the case, and it had immense meaning and value to me.
© 2012 Robert Danno