The Case of the Indian Trader review
‘The Case of the Indian Trader’ illuminates the case of the oyster grower
By Dave Mitchell
In trying to make a case for the federal government’s not renewing the lease of Drakes Bay Oyster Company in 2012, former Point Reyes National Seashore Supt. Don Neubacher and park science advisor Sarah Allen disseminated false data.
Those were among the findings critical of the two when the Interior Department’s Inspector General’s Office issued a report in 2008. The report followed a year-long investigation, which began after company owner Kevin Lunny complained that he was being treated unfairly and slandered by the park.
Neubacher’s boss was Jon Jarvis, then director of the Western Regional Office of the Park Service, and conveniently for Neubacher, his wife Patti worked closely with Jarvis as the assistant director. So how did the regional office respond?
The report vindicated the Park Service, the regional office insisted, because there had been no finding that Neubacher and Allen had tried to close the oyster company before its lease expired. The Inspector General’s investigation, however, had focused on scientific misrepresentations by Allen and Supt. Neubacher — not on whether they were trying to close the oyster company before 2012 — so the regional office was merely indulging in an exotic spin job.
The National Seashore’s exotic toadies immediately created a chorus of chirping. “By my count the ball game was won 14-1 by the Park Service,” Gordon Bennett, then spokesman for the Marin Chapter of the Sierra Club, told The Marin Independent Journal.
And what did the Interior Department do to punish Neubacher for his misrepresentations? It made him superintendent of Yosemite National Park two years later and made Jarvis, his boss and defender, director of the National Park Service (NPS).
A nationwide problem
Bizarre as those events seemed — given the clean-cut image the Park Service cultivates — this sort of thing is happening nationwide within the agency, as is documented by a new book, The Case of the Indian Trader: Billy Malone and the National Park Service Investigation at Hubbell Trading Post.
In his book, author Paul Berkowitz, a retired criminal investigator for the National Park Service, describes the cronyism, nepotism, corruption, and political pressures that shape NPS and Department of the Interior management.
The Case of the Indian Trader tells the true story (heavily documented with law enforcement reports) of a respected, honest, longtime trader who was falsely accused of fraud and other crimes.
The trading post in federally administered Navajo country is owned by the Western National Parks Association (WNPA), which normally provides information in parks and makes financial contributions to them — much like the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, which sells books at the Visitor Center.
In 2003, LeAnn Simpson became executive director of the WNPA and was immediately horrified by Malone’s traditional bookkeeping, which often consisted of verbal agreements with the rug weavers and jewelry makers on the reservation, some of whom could not read or write. With no evidence to back her up, she assumed Malone must have stolen millions of dollars from the trading post.
At her request, the Park Service in 2004 launched an aggressive investigation of Malone, seizing his personal property while WNPA evicted him from the trading post.
Two years went by before Malone was finally allowed to prove the property was his and recover it. He is now suing the Park Service, WNPA, and 10 past and present members of each.
In 2005, special agent Berkowitz had been assigned to direct the trading post investigation. In doing so, he found repeated instances of investigators and their supervisors being dishonest, withholding exculpatory evidence, and circumventing the law to satisfy the WNPA and Park Service.
There is a name for officials who put themselves above the law in this way, writes Berkowitz, who previously taught law enforcement classes. “Police administrators and psychologists have coined the term ‘noble cause corruption.’” Among his other observations:
• “The NPS has evolved into a very insulated, provincial and sometimes cult-like organization…. The demand for loyalty insinuates itself into virtually every aspect of the NPS…. Over time these excesses come to affect many employees’ sense of what is and is not acceptable behavior, as they assimilate into the culture, often acting with near-blind obedience as they surrender their own better judgment to that prescribed by their employer.”
• “An example of how extreme this indoctrination can be is that both new and transferring employees in many park areas have been required to swear a distinct oath of allegiance to the NPS at the very same time they swear to support and defend the US Constitution.”
• “Information about NPS activities is regulated and restricted through carefully crafted press releases that often spin facts and fabricate accounts…. To allow a problem to surface into the public arena is an unforgivable act that could embarrass the agency.”
• “NPS managers and employees themselves were found to have engaged in serious criminal activities while on duty, for which they were never officially investigated or prosecuted [by the Interior Department].… In one notorious instance, a ranger even obtained a government step (pay) increase while sitting in jail on local charges related to voyeurism,” he writes.
“The same employee had repeatedly been caught under similar circumstances in various parks to which he was assigned but was continually moved and promoted through the ranks (including chief park ranger) after each incident until reaching the position of assistant superintendent at a national recreation area where he continued to oversee law enforcement activities.”
In yet another case, Berkowitz’s own supervisor would later admit to theft of public money but would receive no jail time and be allowed to retire with a full Park Service pension of nearly $100,000 per year.
Is the book fair?
Skeptics may question whether the book is fair to the Interior Department and its Park Service, but Berkowitz repeatedly acknowledges there are “extraordinarily talented rangers and special agents who do work for the agency and individually strive for high standards.”
Nonetheless, West Marin should beware the warning: “Short of crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.” That observation, which is quoted by Berkowitz, did not originate with him but with Inspector General Earl Devany testifying in Congress.
— The Case of the Indian Trader, 354 pages, University of New Mexico Press