Berkowitz brings echoes of Drakes Estero

11/03/2011

On Sunday, retired criminal investigator Paul Berkowitz stood before a sizeable crowd in the West Marin School Gym lamenting the tale of a rural, working class man reared on tradition, deeply respected among his peers, and eventually criminalized by the National Park Service.

He was not talking about Kevin Lunny.

The protagonist was an Indian trader named Billy Malone, of whom Berkowitz, an employee of the park service at the time, had been tasked with investigating for fraud and the embezzlement of millions of dollars of federal funds. Berkowitz took the case with the understanding that he was to find something—anything—on which to convict Malone and thereby justify the more than $1 million of taxpayer earnings already spent to ransack his home and destroy an otherwise unblemished public image.   

Berkowitz’s yearlong investigation, which ended in late 2005, uncovered that a number of serious criminal acts had taken place—not by Malone, but by the park service.

A detailed account of the episode is described in Berkowitz’s new book, The Case of the Indian Trader: Billy Malone and the National Park Service Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post. It is, the author asserts, merely a case study into a “much bigger and broader” climate of corruption within the agency. “The purpose of the book is to show a pattern of behavior,” he said. “Because frankly, the park service has a longstanding problem of integrity and accountability and they really need to deal with it if they want things like this not to occur in the future.”

Lunny, who remains enmeshed in his own battle with the park service over the preservation of a 90-year-old oyster farm and cannery—the last of its kind in the state of California—watched in wide-eyed silence on Sunday, nodding as Berkowitz cited numerous first-hand accounts of fraternal, often-illegal dealings by co-workers and senior park service officials.

Perhaps most egregious of these involved an illegal wire tapping by senior officials at Yosemite in the 1980s. Then a young drug enforcement agent for the park service, Berkowitz claimed he was ordered to illegally record a private meeting between the superintendent and a staunch park opponent. The non-consensual recording was part of a growing web of “illegal conduct”—from the falsification of reports to the destruction of evidence and the misuse of government funds—Berkowitz said he witnessed in his short time with the unit. It had even surfaced that his supervising officer was trading clemency for sexual favors from criminally active adolescent boys.

“I felt like I needed to report it to somebody,” Berkowitz recounted. Knowing he couldn’t bring the allegations to his supervisors, he began what would become a two-year quest to find an appropriate disciplinary body to act on the claims. Regional officials said there was nothing they could do. National officials pointed him to the U.S. Inspector General’s office, which finally launched an investigation.

Yosemite’s superintendent was eventually fired. No other employees involved—besides Berkowitz, who was reassigned to the midnight shift—received punishment of any kind, including the alleged pedophile, who was arrested years later near Fresno on charges of kidnapping and “oral copulation with juveniles.”

Berkowitz’s life was forever changed. He became a whistle blower on other incidents of misconduct, and a conduit through which aggrieved co-workers could channel concerns. “And that’s a lot of what I ended up doing—get confidential information about misconduct, sterilize it and funnel it up to the office of the Inspector General,” he said. Over his 32-year tenure, three instances of top official lay-offs stemmed from reports he penned, the most recent being a superintendent found guilty of embezzlement in 2003.

Concern over the way former and current officials at Point Reyes National Seashore have handled the oyster farm debate has driven similar questions of misconduct and lack of agency integrity, and compelled Berkowitz’s invitation to speak by local nonprofits Marin Watch, the Alliance for Sustainable Local Agriculture and Marin Organic.

A report released in March by the Interior Department found Seashore officials guilty of “administrative misconduct” after they willingly withheld images from hidden cameras that contradicted their claims against Drakes Bay Oyster Company. But no disciplinary action was publicly taken.

Next week, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform begins an investigation into whether those and subsequent actions were taken with the intent to mislead the public regarding the oyster farm’s environmental impacts. In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who is charged with renewing or terminating the oyster farm’s lease next year, committee chair Darrell Issa, R-Calif., claimed it was “imperative that the information you receive from the [park service] to make that decision is reliable and unbiased. I am concerned it is not.”

Seven officials involved in the controversy—including park service Director Jon Jarvis, Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon and former superintendent Don Neubacher—have been summoned to Washington D.C. for preliminary depositions beginning Monday. A public hearing has yet to be announced.

More importantly, said local biologist Dr. Corey Goodman, who lodged the criticism that sparked the Interior Department’s original investigation, are the thousands of pages of documents the committee has also subpoenaed, including the 280,000 hidden camera images and previously withheld draft versions of the 2011 Interior report by Solicitor Gavin Frost.

Goodman and Lunny have claimed Frost informed each of them prior to the report’s release that he found multiple counts of violation of the park service’s Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct. If Issa’s committee finds that the final draft of Frost’s report was altered, it could have large implications on the park service and a pending million-dollar environmental impact statement.

In fact, it could be the key component that fuels responsive action on a national level—which Berkowitz concedes is the only way the agency can sustainably improve.
“You’ve got to place people in charge of the agency seriously committed to integrity and accountability,” he said. “I’m not talking about just having policies on the books…. I’ve said this before, policy inconsistently applied is almost worse than no policy at all, because the policy becomes a weapon of retaliation rather than a tool of programmatic integrity.”

And it’s not about punishment or past grievances, Berkowitz admitted: “The park service should be just about the greatest agency there is to work for. The opportunities for it to be the best exist, but it has failed to reach its potential because of the way it’s managed. And that hurts park service employees, but more importantly it’s damaging to park resources.”