10-01-11 Seattle Times, Mount Rainier park ex-official scrutinized on land deal

Mount Rainier park ex-official scrutinized on land deal

In 2002, David Uberuaga, then Mount Rainier National Park’s superintendent, sold his home in Ashford for far above its assessed value to the owner of the company that then held a monopoly as the park’s official climbing-guide service; that transaction raised questions and resulted in a reprimand.

By Ron Judd

Seattle Times staff reporter

Even with the looming backdrop of one of America’s grandest peaks, the property doesn’t look like much: a modest house surrounded by tall grass fields in the Mount Rainier gateway community of Ashford.

But the 2-acre parcel on Highway 706 became a very big deal to federal investigators when they learned that its owner, Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent David Uberuaga, had sold the Pierce County property at an inflated price to an owner of the company that then held a multimillion-dollar monopoly as the park’s official climbing-guide service.

Uberuaga sold his three-bedroom home in 2002 to Peter Whittaker, head of Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI), for $425,000, more than triple its assessed value. A five-year, owner-financed real-estate contract made the two men business partners while Uberuaga’s administration was rewriting rules that would determine RMI’s share of the lucrative Rainier climbing business for years to come.

Yet Uberuaga never recused himself from park-business dealings with Whittaker and repeatedly offered only a vague description of the deal on his federal ethics-disclosure forms, records show. When finally pressed for more details by a federal ethics officer, he continued to conceal that the man paying an unusually handsome price for his home also owned the park’s largest concessions contract.

Investigators eventually concluded that Uberuaga “made false statements or concealed material facts” about the transaction. In late 2008, they referred the case to federal prosecutors in Seattle, who declined to prosecute.

The Park Service gave Uberuaga a letter of reprimand.

Details of the questionable land deal came to light only recently — through Seattle Times federal public-records requests in 2010 that eventually produced several hundred pages of redacted documents. A Times investigation, which also included numerous interviews and other public records, offers a rare look at the business side of Mount Rainier National Park, the state’s iconic tourist draw and a global climbing mecca.

It also raises questions about National Park Service promotion practices. This summer, Uberuaga was rewarded with one of the most prestigious posts in the Park Service: superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, which boasts some of the nation’s richest concessions contracts, with $145 million in gross annual revenues.

Because of the park’s status, the Grand Canyon promotion required a new “senior executive” status for Uberuaga — and special vetting at National Park Service headquarters, where details of the Rainier investigation are well-known.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, a former Rainier superintendent, not only signed Uberuaga’s 2008 letter of reprimand but also approved his latest promotion.

Yet Uberuaga said the investigation and subsequent reprimand never came up during interviews for his new job, which comes with a $7,000 pay increase, to $153,000 a year.

Jarvis declined repeated interview requests, and the Park Service refused to release any of its records related to the investigation.

Uberuaga denies that he intentionally withheld information or that the land deal was in any way a kickback for services rendered, promised or even hoped for by Whittaker.

“I was confident with my integrity,” Uberuaga told The Times. “I didn’t have anything to hide. I feel very good about 27 years of decisions that I’ve made. My actions have to be above reproach every single day on every single thing I do. That’s the way I’ve always been.”

Earlier complaints

Accusations of untoward chumminess between Mount Rainier National Park and RMI are not new. Competing guide companies had groused about RMI’s virtual monopoly on Rainier long before the climbing concession became the $4 million-plus annual business it is today.

RMI, founded in 1969 by Peter Whittaker’s father, Lou, and a partner, had a stranglehold on paid Rainier climbing-guide services for more than three decades. Uberuaga was a park administrator for much of that time.

A rare park employee with a master’s degree in business, Uberuaga (Oo-burr-AW-guh), 61, launched his Rainier career in 1984 as chief of administration overseeing contracts, human resources, procurement and other fine points of the federal bureaucracy.

For much of his Rainier stint, Uberuaga, wife Barbara and three children lived in the modest Ashford house, purchased in 1992 for $84,000, directly across Highway 706 from the Whittaker family’s “Rainier BaseCamp” enterprise. All three Uberuaga children held seasonal jobs with RMI at various times. The Whittakers were neighbors and family friends.

Even before the real-estate deal, that close relationship became a concern to Uberuaga’s supervisor. In a memo obtained by The Times but not referred to in the federal investigation, then-Superintendent Jarvis in February 2002 recused Uberuaga, his deputy, from any park-contracting matters as long as the Uberuaga children worked for Whittaker.

In the memo, Jarvis said the potential for an appearance of conflict had prompted him to personally retain all authority for park-concessions contracting. He emphasized Uberuaga’s need to keep an especially safe distance with contractors as the park developed a new Commercial Services Plan.

“To ensure that ANY potential appearance of a conflict of interest is removed … as long as Dave’s children remain employed in any way by RMI or any other concessionaire, Dave will not have any involvement in” the concessions program, Jarvis wrote.

At the end of summer 2002, Uberuaga’s children took what Whittaker thought was the unusual step of issuing formal letters of resignation from their seasonal jobs.

Around the same time, Uberuaga said, he began mulling the sale of his house — an action urged by his wife, who wanted to move to nearby Eatonville.

Events in the park that fall gave him reason to agree: Uberuaga learned he was in line to become the park’s next superintendent. Around the same time, a new long-range plan identified the family property as part of a likely site for a future park transit center. Uberuaga was worried that a superintendent’s owning land that was key to park plans “could get sticky” in terms of public appearances.

He decided to sell.

Despite its $122,400 assessed value, Uberuaga believed the property could bring as much as $465,000 — a figure he arrived at by doing his own “market analysis” of nearby commercial parcels along Highway 706.

Knowing the Whittakers were a likely buyer, he sought ethical advice: How should he handle the sale of property that could wind up in the hands of a major park business partner?

You’re free to sell your property to anyone, Uberuaga said he was told by an official in the Park Service’s regional solicitor’s office in Portland. But “make it as public as possible.” List the property publicly, and entertain all offers.

Uberuaga did so — sort of.

He went to a local ERA Countryside real-estate agent and first asked simply for help drawing up a real-estate contract with a buyer already in hand — Peter Whittaker, records show. Later, he asked the agent to list the property publicly — but for a specified period of two weeks beginning in late September 2002.

Whittaker quickly agreed to a $425,000 purchase price, signing a purchase contract in December 2002.

Because the sales price was more than triple the assessed value — and more than twice the assessed value even today — conventional financing was not an option, Whittaker said. Uberuaga agreed to an owner-financed sale: Whittaker, paying 20 percent down and 7 percent interest, would make 63 monthly payments through a third party, Fidelity Contract Services.

The Uberuagas moved to Eatonville, and the new superintendent went about his business.

Contentious process

Much of that business involved the park’s new Commercial Services Plan, which was proving to be the most contentious process in the park’s recent history.

Because more than four years already had passed since Congress made federal contracting more competitive, Rainier Mountaineering’s guide-service monopoly was living on borrowed time. The company’s most recent contract with the park had expired in 2001 and was being renewed year by year as Uberuaga’s team slogged through the long process of holding public hearings and rewriting park-contracting rules.

That process, directed by Uberuaga, began in 2002 and took three years. Along the way, competing guide services groused about apparent bureaucratic foot-dragging that allowed RMI to maintain its monopoly, worth as much as $1 million per year in additional revenues, records show.

In a preliminary draft of the plan, the park split climbing-guide services into three equal shares. But the final plan, released in 2005, gave RMI half of the park’s annual commercial-climbing permits. (About 10,500 climbers attempted Rainier last year; 4,589 were paid guides and clients. Prices range from $1,000 to $1,600 per person.) Two competitors, Alpine Ascents International and International Mountain Guides, were awarded 25 percent each.

As part of the final paperwork for the new contracts, Uberuaga had to sign a single-page “Conflict of Interest and Confidentiality Certificate,” attesting that he knew of nothing that “might place me in a position of conflict, real or apparent.” The document specifically directed him to certify he had considered all stocks, bonds and “other financial interests” in making that determination.

Directly above a line noting that a false declaration could lead to federal prosecution, Uberuaga signed the document and dated it May 4, 2006.

Whittaker paid off the real-estate loan in March 2008 — the same month he assumed majority ownership of RMI from his father. The real-estate deal was scarcely noticed until five months later, when someone privy to the details complained to federal authorities about a conflict of interest.

Uberuaga interrogated

That anonymous tip made its way to the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Its investigators descended upon park headquarters, where they combed through records and confiscated Uberuaga’s work- and home-computer hard drives.

In a pair of lengthy interrogations of Uberuaga, the investigators bluntly laid out their findings:

Uberuaga had sold personal property to a major park contractor at what appeared to be a “crazy” high price. By publicly listing the property for only two weeks, Uberuaga appeared to have created a pro-forma public process, simply to make the deal “pass the smell test” for ethics overseers.

Uberuaga had no explanation for the two-week listing, telling investigators, “I mean, I look at that now and say… Yeah, why just two weeks?”

His best defense for signing the 2006 conflict-of-interest statement without disclosing the Whittaker land deal was essentially that he hadn’t read it and assumed it was just a confidentiality agreement.

Rereading it in the presence of investigators, he conceded, “It’s obviously a lot more than that … that was another opportunity there to fully disclose.”

But that was just one of at least a half-dozen federal ethics documents signed by the superintendent over that period, each providing Uberuaga an opportunity to fully disclose the land deal.

As required by law, he had reported the sale on his annual federal Ethics in Government Form 450, where he described it, under the heading “Assets and Income,” as “Real Estate Contract, Fidelity Contract Services,” with Peter Whittaker. On another page, under the heading “Entity with which you have an agreement or arrangement,” Uberuaga wrote, “None.”

He left the descriptions unchanged on subsequent ethics forms through 2008, when an official at the park service’s Pacific West Region office emailed Uberuaga, seeking more details about “with whom or what company” the contract was with.

Uberuaga responded in part in an email: “This is an owner-financed real estate contract that was set up when we sold our home to a private party.”

He did not explain why he never saw fit to disclose that the “private party” was a co-owner of RMI.

Investigators appeared to be incredulous.

“This is the guy who’s evaluating this for any sort of conflict of interest,” an OIG agent told Uberuaga. “What do you think he’s asking by that?”

Uberuaga: “Well, I thought he was asking what I answered, and what you’re saying is I should have answered it more fully and put some flags on it.”

Agent: “Well, I’m not saying it. You are. But yeah, I’m thinking that as well.”

Uberuaga said he assumed other Park Service officials would have realized on their own the potential conflict a deal with Whittaker might present.

But the Park Service official who asked for more information later told investigators he had no idea about Whittaker’s business relations with the park, and “definitely would have asked more questions” and kicked the matter up the chain of command if he had.

Uberuaga’s response: “I wasn’t trying to hide it. I wasn’t trying to blab it either.”

Asked if the sale was a kickback, Uberuaga repeatedly said no, agreeing to back up the answer on a polygraph exam. He later did so, and “deception was not indicated,” according to the examiner’s report.

In hindsight, Uberuaga concedes the sale’s timing with the park’s contract plan and RMI’s open contract looks suspicious. “I could see where there was an appearance of conflict,” he said. Aside from suggesting it would prevent him from “fully carrying out” his job, Uberuaga has never explained his failure to recuse himself from business decisions involving RMI.

He told The Times he agreed with Jarvis’ 2002 order to recuse him from contracting matters while his children were employed by RMI.

Yet later that year, he signed a multiyear real-estate contract with an owner of the same company and deemed a recusal unnecessary — a contention he still defends.

“My rationale at the time was that all my work would be reviewed by others,” he told The Times.

“I felt like what I did with my disclosure was enough, really. Otherwise, someone would have said something to me.”

That someone might have been Jarvis, who was briefed on the property sale, records show. Despite his unequivocal recusal of Uberuaga in 2002 for what appeared to be a less-serious appearance of conflict, Jarvis told investigators he agreed no recusal was necessary after the real-estate deal.

A spokesman for Jarvis, David Barna, issued a statement describing the park service’s extremely high ethical standards and the “stringent penalties” for violators.

“Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is unacceptable,” Barna wrote, adding: “David Uberuaga is a devoted public servant. Allegations of a conflict of interest regarding a concessionaire at Mount Rainier were thoroughly investigated … and resolved.”

“Are you serious?”

Whittaker, who grew up on the mountain and has seen superintendents come and go, laughed at the notion his expensive purchase was an attempt to gain favor with the park boss. If he was a co-conspirator, he said, he was a lousy one.

“Kickbacks, special consideration… are you serious?” Whittaker said. “We got, if anything, less attention after the real-estate deal.”

RMI lost roughly a third of its overall Rainier climbing revenue with the 2006 contract revisions, he said. The company’s franchise fee — a percentage of gross receipts paid to the park — jumped from 4 percent to 7 percent in previous contracts to 15 percent. The company in 2010 paid the park $305,000 on $2.1 million in gross revenues.

But Whittaker also concedes the timing of the transaction “looks very cozy and close. I understand how people could look at that and think there was something going on. But I have nothing to hide.”

He did pay a “premium” price for the property, he said. He had hoped to use the property for a new welcome center and climbing museum, a public/private partnership that for now, at least, lacks any public financing.

But Whittaker had another reason to jump on the land in 2002: A competitor, Eric Simonson’s International Mountain Guides, was looking at it, too, hoping to expand in Ashford if and when RMI’s climbing monopoly ended.

Simonson said all three companies work cooperatively on the mountain today, with controversy over the contracts mostly a memory. But after recently learning of the federal investigation, he wonders whether RMI’s still-handsome share of the Rainier climbing bounty was the result of a truly objective process.

“To what extent was influence exerted? I don’t know,” he said. “But clearly Peter Whittaker has no reason to want to piss off the superintendent. If throwing him an extra hundred thousand or so on his house or something was a way of making him feel the love, then, you know, feel the love.”


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