NATIONAL PARKS:

Police chief -- fired for whistle-blowing in 2004 -- is reinstated

A federal appeals board yesterday ordered that Teresa Chambers be reinstated as chief of the U.S. Park Police, seven years after she was fired for telling reporters that her department was understaffed and in need of more funding.

The decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board, which also awarded Chambers back pay with interest, was celebrated as a major victory in the whistle-blower community.

In a testament to the fact that such reinstatements are rare, Chambers said she was stunned by yesterday's decision. She added that she's looking forward to returning to the U.S. Park Police "and picking up the pieces and continuing to serve my country."

Chambers said she hopes the ruling will bring about some positive impacts for other civil servants who want to speak out.

"This is about whether a civil servant can get fired for telling the truth," she said. It is "a matter of sending the message of whether candor is valued rather than punished in the federal government."

On Dec. 5, 2003, Park Service officials suspended Chambers three days after she told Washington, D.C., reporters that her department had been forced to scale back patrols so that officers could guard national monuments. Chambers also told reporters that the U.S. Park Police had a budget shortfall of several million dollars and that she needed more officers to carry out the department's mission.

Two weeks later, the deputy director of the Park Service informed Chambers he had proposed her removal and was also considering pressing charges against her for releasing sensitive information, insubordination and breaking the chain of command. Chambers was officially terminated the following July.

But the evidence against Chambers was deemed to be weak and her actions were found to be protected under federal whistle-blower laws.

"We find that the agency's evidence in support of its actions was not strong at the time it took the actions, the record demonstrates that the acting officials had a significant motive to retaliate against the appellant, and the agency did not show that it took similar actions against similarly-situated non-whistleblowers," the panel wrote in its opinion yesterday.

The Department of the Interior could still appeal yesterday's ruling, and National Park Service officials did not rule out that possibility.

"We are reviewing the judge's decision and have no further comment at this time," said NPS spokesman David Barna.

But the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represented Chambers in her case, indicated that it was optimistic that the board's ruling would be difficult to overturn.

"This is a wonderful ruling, not only for Chief Chambers but for thousands who believe that honesty is part of public service," said PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who argued the appeal for Chambers. "The wheels of justice turn slowly, but eventually they do turn."

Chambers -- who, after her removal, spent four years unemployed before taking a job as the chief of police in Riverdale Park, Md. -- said she hopes that her long ordeal is now over and that she can now go back to the job that she was first hired for in February 2002. She added that she sees nothing but positives in returning to the U.S. Park Police.

"The people that took these actions against me are all long since gone; they were all political appointees," she said. "It's not the same environment I left. I would hope it's a much more positive environment."

The return of Chambers would mean the displacement of current Park Police Chief Sal Lauro, who has run the department since early 2009. Lauro served as a command officer under Chambers when she was chief.

Chambers said the details of the transition would have to be worked out through the Interior Department, but "in a perfect world, Sal Lauro would want to remain a part of the upper-level command staff."