Paralysis at the Interior Department Threatens Security, Critics Claim

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

( - Homeland security? What about the leadership vacuum at the U.S. Park Police -- the uniformed division that guards some of America's most famous monuments -- says a public employees' advocacy group.

A group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) accuses the Interior Department of "playing musical chairs with one of the country's top homeland security jobs."

Here's the problem, it says: Ben Holmes, the acting chief of the U.S. Park Police, is scheduled to retire on Friday, but no successor has been named. "No one knows who will fill in for Holmes or for how long," PEER complained in a press release.

Park Police Chief Tesesa Chambers is in limbo, meanwhile: She has been on paid administrative leave for 16 weeks, fighting what she calls an unjustified effort to fire her.

Chambers, who took the top job at the Park Police in 2002, was stripped of her badge in December 2003, after ruffling higher-ups with an interview she gave to the Washington Post.

In that interview, Chambers complained about Park Police staff and funding levels (she considered them too low).

Chambers told the Washington Post that traffic accidents had increased on the Baltimore Washington Parkway, where only two officers patrol instead of the recommended four (the Park Police patrols federal highways in the Washington area).

Chambers also said there weren't enough Park Police officers to provide adequate protection for all the Washington-area land they are assigned to patrol. And she revealed that 20 unarmed security guards would begin patrolling Washington, D.C., monuments.

A furious Donald Murphy, deputy director of the National Park Service, accused Chambers of improperly "making public remarks regarding security on the Federal mall, and in parks and on the parkways in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area."

He also accused Chambers of improperly disclosing confidential budget deliberations. And he blasted Chambers for insubordination -- "failure to carry out a superviser's instructions," his memo said.

"I believe that your misconduct has caused irreparable injury to our professional relationship," Murphy said in a memo announcing his intent to fire Chambers. "It is impossible for me to continue to work with you challenge my authority and display behavior that establishes that you are unwilling to follow the chain of command associated with the NPS."
Chambers is fighting the effort to fire her, claiming protection under the First Amendment and the Whistleblower Protection Act, which shields employees who disclose "a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety."

Several members of Congress have questioned her firing as well.

Meantime, the absence of fixed leadership at the U.S. Park Police leaves the nation vulnerable, PEER said.

"What a ridiculous way to run a railroad," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. [It is important to note that Ruch's group is fighting for Chambers' reinstatement.]

"By continuing to dither, the leadership in the Department of Interior is guilty of gross management malpractice," Ruch said in a press release.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility describes itself as a private, non-profit organization that "protects the government employees who protect our environment." PEER says it "promotes environmental ethics and government accountability."

The U.S. Park Police, the oldest uniformed federal police force, is responsible for safeguarding the National Mall, national monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as monuments, parks and parkways in the D.C. metropolitan area.