Fired Police Chief Sues Park Service for $2.15 Million

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

( - The former chief of the U.S Park Police, who was fired in 2003 after media outlets published her complaints about inadequate staffing to protect national parks and monuments, is now suing the National Park Service.

Teresa Chambers, who is asking for $2.15 million in damages, alleges that the Park Service damaged her reputation and inflicted emotional distress. Chambers is also trying to force the government agency to release what she claims is a positive performance evaluation completed "just weeks" before she was fired for allegedly "substandard" work.

"I'm hoping, as always, that this prompts the Department of Interior (the parent agency of the Park Service) into some action and to do the right thing," Chambers told Cybercast News Service. "We just want this behind us. I want to return to work."

Chambers claims she was fired in retaliation for an interview she gave The Washington Post in 2003, during which she said that traffic accidents increased on at least one federal highway patrolled by U.S. Park Police in the Washington metropolitan area after the number of officers assigned to patrol the highway was cut to half the recommended level. She also complained that the number of officers tasked with patrolling federal parklands in the Washington area was inadequate and revealed that 20 unarmed security guards would be patrolling national monuments in the capitol region as a result of the reduced manpower.

After a lengthy battle with politically-appointed civilian managers, Chambers was fired for six alleged administrative violations characterized as "substandard performance and conduct." Her suit seeks $1.4 million in compensatory damages from her former employer in addition to the $750,000 claim for "damaged reputation and emotional distress."

"That's never been the motivator," Chambers said of the monetary damages sought in the suit. "Since the start, the motivation has been to get back to work, to get back to the profession I love and to fulfill the duties that I was sworn to complete when I took the job."

The filing contains provisions that would reduce the amount of damages Chambers is seeking if and when she is reinstated to her job, before the case goes to federal court. According to Chambers' attorney, the Park Service has six months to reinstate her as chief of the Park Police or pay the full claim of $2.15 million.

"The case of Teresa Chambers will determine whether federal civil servants can be fired by political appointees simply for telling the truth," Richard Condit said in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

Condit is general counsel of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has supported Chambers' efforts to regain her job.

Second suit seeks release of job performance evaluation

Chambers has filed a second suit, under the federal Privacy Act, attempting to force the Park Service to release a written evaluation of her job performance that she characterizes as "positive" and that was allegedly prepared "just weeks" before her termination.

"At one point, they said it didn't exist; then they said it did," Chambers recalled. "Then they came back and said they were mistaken that there really was never a performance appraisal."

But Chambers has a memo from her former supervisor, Park Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy, informing Chambers that her performance appraisal was ready and instructing her to contact Murphy's secretary to set an appointment to discuss the document. Murphy also admitted under oath that the evaluation existed, though he later recanted that testimony. During the original testimony, however, Murphy mentioned the name of the Park Service human resources staff member who had assisted him in preparing the document.

"She was subpoenaed by us. She's retired now. She came in as part of the Privacy Act case that we have in federal court now and testified that she knows it existed because she prepared it at his direction," Chambers said. "That's key with regard to, not only the fact that I have an appraisal out there that is, by all available accounts, a good one, but it also may speak to [Murphy's] credibility."

PEER said it would pursue every available avenue to obtain the document, which it believes will prove the claim that Chambers was fired in retaliation for publicly venting her complaints, not for allegedly poor job performance.

"No matter how long it takes," Condit said, "we will leave no stone unturned in restoring Teresa Chambers as the chief of the U.S. Park Police."

David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service, said in a statement emailed to Cybercast News Service that the agency "cannot comment on personnel actions and cannot comment on pending litigation."

See Previous Story:
Chambers Applies for Old Job as Park Police Chief (Dec. 28, 2004)

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