The National Park Service's hiring of the daughter of the named plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education case to serve as the superintendent of the historic site commemorating the landmark Supreme Court case created a conflict of interest, according to a new Interior Department inspector general report.
In addition, the IG's 15-month-long investigation concluded that Cheryl Brown Henderson did not comply with a recusal agreement put in place by Interior ethics officials to try to resolve the conflict of interest.
Although Brown Henderson today dismissed the finding of the report as highly subjective and without merit, the IG has referred the investigation to Interior's assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks for "any administrative action deemed appropriate," the report states.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Topeka, Kan., has already declined to pursue charges in the matter.
Brown Henderson served as president of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research from its founding in 1988 until June 2010, when she became superintendent of NPS's Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The private foundation works as a close partner in interpreting the history of the famous case and receives some $300,000 each year from the Park Service to provide training materials and help in interpreting the site.
But soon after her appointment, the IG was informed through an anonymous tip about a possible conflict of interest.
Brown Henderson's new role as a federal employee would require her to conduct business with the foundation, which, the IG found, employed both her mother and her sister. The IG also spent part of its investigation uncovering the romantic relationship that Brown Henderson had with the foundation's chief operating officer, eventually concluding that he was in fact Brown Henderson's "boyfriend."
"Brown Henderson said the Foundation Chief Operating Officer (COO), was 'a friend' with whom she went to the movies. She said she and the COO did not live together, but they sometimes carpooled to work," the report states. "We later informed Brown Henderson that the COO described their affiliation as an 'intimate' and 'romantic' relationship that began almost 7 years ago. She replied that she defined their relationship differently and stated that their relationship was 'close' and 'personal.'"
Because of the IG's concerns, the Interior's ethics office got involved in the case and Brown Henderson was advised to recuse herself from all official activity affecting the foundation in her new role.
But a month after signing the a recusal agreement, the IG's office received another complaint that Brown Henderson was still very much involved in matters relating to the foundation.
In investigating that complaint the IG's office also began looking into whether applicable recruitment rules had been followed in the hiring of Brown Henderson.
Because of what she described as the "distraction" of the IG investigation, Brown Henderson resigned from NPS on Dec. 31, 2010, and returned to her role at the foundation.
She said today that the ongoing investigation is both "perplexing" and "surprising."
"The foundation worked for a great many years to get this park up and running, we worked with both the House and the Senate on wanting legislation to establish a park," she said. "It's seemed like a natural progressive step to see our vision through would be to actually work for the park service in stewardship of this story."
Brown Henderson said that much of what the IG report found was based on anonymous contacts and that she believes the conclusions from the investigation into her personal life were highly subjective.
"I do think, based on what I've read, that it appeared to be very personal, with little merit in terms of the work, the mission, the history, the significance" of the mission of the historic site and the foundation, she said.