Ten workers at Yellowstone National Park to be punished for sexual harassment

Associated Press

As many as 10 workers in Yellowstone National Park's maintenance division will be disciplined after an investigation found they subjected female employees to derogatory comments and other sexual harassment, the park's superintendent told The Associated Press.

The move comes as widespread reports of harassment, bullying and other misconduct have tarnished the image of the National Park Service and its parent agency, the U.S. Interior Department.

Investigators have uncovered problems at many of the nation's premier parks — Yellowstone, Yosemite, Canaveral National Seashore, the Grand Canyon — as well as inappropriate behavior toward female employees by the Interior Department's director of law enforcement.

The agency's Office Inspector General launched its investigation into Yellowstone last year when a park employee complained to a local magazine and members of Congress that a pervasive "men's club" environment had encouraged the exploitation and abuse of female workers.

The results of the investigation were shared with park officials more than four months ago, on March 13.

Punishments will be proposed by Aug. 1 or soon afterward for the 10 employees and could range from reprimands to suspensions or firing, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said. The workers can appeal before the penalties become final.

Since the harassment allegations emerged last year, park supervisors have undergone mandatory sexual harassment training. Similar training is happening this summer for all seasonal and permanent employees.

In disclosing the upcoming personnel actions, Wenk echoed prior comments of senior officials within the park service and Interior: They're trying to change an embedded culture that has allowed misconduct to proliferate.

"I'm concerned that people understand what acceptable behavior in the workplace is," Wenk said. "We're setting out very clear expectations for how people comport themselves."

Investigators found that between 2010 and 2016, six women who had previously worked in the maintenance division had faced derogatory comments or actions that made them feel uncomfortable. They said the division's supervisor described the culture at Yellowstone as a "good old boy system" that was rampant in the 1990s but has improved over time.

The inspector general's investigation also found that government-issued charge cards in the maintenance division had been misused.

Among other steps being taken at the park is a new policy intended to curb the misuse of alcohol by employees after hours at remote work locations. And there will be a park-wide audit of employees' use of charge cards, Wenk said.

There's been no indication Wenk, who became superintendent in 2011, knew about the allegations at Yellowstone and ignored them. He said he first became aware of them just before an article published last September in The Montana Pioneer.

The superintendents of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon retired in recent months following allegations of sexual harassment and hostile work environments at the parks.

At least 18 Yosemite employees came forward with allegations, and working conditions were said to be so bad that they were labeled "toxic." At the Grand Canyon, male employees reportedly preyed on female colleagues, demanded sex and retaliated against women who refused.

The superintendent of Canaveral National Seashore in Florida was put on paid leave amid similar allegations and the Interior Department's law enforcement director, Tim Lynn, retired in the spring after investigators disclosed in February that he had displayed a "pattern of unprofessional behavior" by touching and hugging female employees and making flirtatious remarks.

A representative of a group that advocates for federal employees said such problems remain entrenched — notwithstanding the planned actions at Yellowstone and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's pledge to show zero tolerance toward sexual harassment.

"The park service still doesn't get it," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Generally, the high-level managers and supervisors escape responsibility and (the agencies) are more than willing to take action against lower-level people."

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