Yosemite Chief's Firing Tied to Ranger Morale, Crime

Times Staff Writer

The surprise removal of Yosemite National Park Supt. Robert O. Binnewies last week was precipitated by low ranger morale and a long-standing conflict over how major crime investigations are conducted in the park, National Park Service officials in Washington and California said Tuesday.

Binnewies came under fire after one of his rangers alleged that drug investigations under the superintendent's supervision had been mishandled, allegations that were were not substantiated by a recent General Accounting Office investigation. The GAO--investigative arm of the Congress--however, did report that the park staff may not have followed their own department regulations during the lengthy drug probe, which netted dozens of small-time drug dealers since 1981.

The GAO report was the latest in a series of controversies at the park. Earlier Binnewies, acting on Interior Department orders, raised rents on ranger housing; then he dismantled the park's criminal investigative unit and ousted Chief Ranger Charles W. Wendt, who had supervised the unit.

The moves resulted in lawsuits and labor grievances, and rangers have complained that morale at the park, one of the oldest in the nation, is very low.

Even so, Binnewies' ouster was unexpected, according to Assistant Supt. James Laney. He said the news was a "complete shock and surprise." Binnewies was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

"Bob Binnewies' assignment to the regional office should not be construed as a disciplinary or punitive action," George Berklacy, chief spokesman for the Park Service, said in a telephone interview from Washington. "Disciplinary actions against Binnewies or others are under consideration, but the (transfer) should not be linked to any administrative action being considered."

National Parks Director William Penn Mott Jr. has named Everglades National Park Supt. John M. (Jack) Morehead, 53, to replace Binnewies. Morehead, a former chief ranger at Yosemite, is well-liked by the ranger force and "has proven himself in difficult situations," a top Park Service official said.

Morehead said in an interview Tuesday that his only "mandate" from Mott is to investigate "all of the allegations. The director said he would support whatever changes I think are necessary." Morehead assumes his new duties in March.

The "directed transfer" of Binnewies, 48, to a planning post in the National Park Service's western regional office in San Francisco was ordered last Thursday and came on the heels of the GAO report.

The GAO report coincided with a similar investigation by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. The Interior Department report has not been made public, but GAO investigators with access to Interior's preliminary findings said neither investigation had come up with any evidence of criminal wrongdoing by rangers or park managers.

The investigations came after Yosemite Ranger Paul Berkowitz told a hearing of the House Interior subcommittee in the park last October that money used for undercover drug purchases in the park was being improperly administered. There were no allegations that any money was missing. Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.), chairman of the subcommittee, ordered the GAO investigation.

When the GAO findings failed to substantiate his allegations, Berkowitz wrote Mott and selected congressmen Jan. 15 with new allegations, including the contention that Binnewies ordered the bugging of his own office to secretly record conversations with officials of the National Inholders Assn., a group of property owners within the park who have long been at odds with Park Service efforts to buy them out. A second Interior Department investigation has been ordered, officials said.

Berkowitz's allegations followed a lengthy internal dispute over the role of rangers in criminal investigations in the park. Since 1972 park rangers have received some law enforcement training but all major crimes have been investigated by trained ranger-detectives from a special Park Service law enforcement office.

Binnewies, who took over the superintendency in 1979, eliminated the special investigative unit and the detectives were returned to patrol ranger status. These ranger-detectives--who include Berkowitz--then filed grievances.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°