Park police chief canned for candidness

  • Teresa Chambers

 

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article, "National parks pinching pennies."

U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers didn’t know what to expect when she reported to the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Park Service Deputy Director Don Murphy, on Dec. 5, 2003. "I had no idea I was about to walk into an ambush," says Chambers. But she could tell something was wrong when she noticed four armed Park Service agents flanking Murphy’s door. Murphy asked for Chambers’ gun and badge and handed her a letter, placing her on administrative leave pending a review.

A few days earlier, Chambers had granted an interview to the Washington Post in which she discussed Park Police funding, citing a $12 million shortfall in 2004 and the need for an $8 million budget increase in 2005. She based her comments on a budget analysis by the Fraternal Order of Police, a union, which cited that rising costs for homeland security were dragging down park police services.

Two weeks after Chambers was placed on leave, Murphy wrote her a letter saying she should be fired for failing to follow orders and for her comments in the Washington Post. Those comments, Murphy wrote, constituted improper lobbying and disclosure of budget talks. Since then, Park Service officials have declined to comment about the case.

For the next six months, Chambers sat at home, preparing a legal challenge against the Park Service. During much of that time, the agency ordered her not to talk to the press without approval.

"Employees who deviate from the company line do so at great personal risk," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that is providing legal assistance to Chambers, as well as to 10 Park Service superintendents who say they fear for their jobs if they speak out about problems.

In July, the Park Service fired Chambers after she brought her lawsuit for reinstatement to the Merit Systems Protection Board, a federal group that protects government employees against managerial abuse. In its preliminary decision, the board said it is unclear whether Chambers is protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act. A hearing is set for Sept. 8.

If she is not reinstated, Chambers intends to appeal the case in district court. "I will take (my case) as far as the courts will allow it," she says. "It’s about federal employees being able to speak the truth without retaliation."

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