Chief ranger trolls — and gets caught

By Emily Yehle | 01/28/2016 01:06 PM EST

A chief ranger with the National Park Service took to the comment section on a local news website to criticize a former employee who won a whistleblower retaliation ruling, according to the Interior Department’s inspector general.

The IG’s office released a summary yesterday of its investigation into online comments made by the chief ranger of Canaveral National Seashore. Though the summary does not name the ranger, Edwin Correa holds the chief ranger position and responded to a Florida Today article in January 2015.

The article detailed a ruling by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which found that former Canaveral employee Candace Carter suffered retaliation after reporting contracting violations to the IG.

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In the world of newspaper comment sections, Correa’s post was tame and its distribution limited. The article got only six other comments.

But Correa posted from his Facebook account, outing himself as an NPS employee.

"Does anybody know that this whistleblower took over two years in leave abusing the system, taking advantage of volunteers twice older than her an doing the job for her, did you know that all her complaints were racially bias against african americans and latinos," Correa wrote in a stream-of-consciousness post that ends with "last but not least do you know that the only thing she won was two hours back paid do to the Government found not merit on her lies."

The IG determined that the comments were "unbecoming of an NPS law enforcement manager and may have violated the NPS Law Enforcement Code of Conduct," according to the investigation summary. It provided the report to NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis.

NPS spokesman Jeffrey Olson said agency officials "take this information from the OIG very seriously." Any personnel actions, he said, will comply with privacy laws.

Correa’s misstep is only the latest installment in a series of questionable behavior of employees of Canaveral, a park on Florida’s east coast that boasts a 25-mile beach popular with nesting sea turtles.

The IG’s office began investigating staff misconduct in 2011 after Carter reported that park officials had violated contracting rules. The resulting 2012 report confirmed Carter’s allegations: Two employees had improperly "split" the cost of a contract in order to hire vendors without competition.

Those employees, Mark Hempe and Shawn Harris, ultimately hired their relatives for the job, according to the 2012 IG report. The $18,000 project should have gone through competitive bidding; Hempe and Harris broke it down into increments of $2,000 or less to avoid that requirement.

The IG also found various management problems.

The park’s superintendent, Myrna Palfrey, told someone on her staff about an IG visit — and then lied to IG investigators about doing so. Then she denied having a personal relationship with Harris and his wife, Natalie, who also works at the park. IG investigators observed Shawn Harris’ car at Palfrey’s home later that night.

The IG opened a second investigation in 2014 based on allegations from Carter that the park was still violating contracting rules.

Carter, who was a biological science technician at the park, filed a retaliation complaint in 2013. She left the agency in October 2014 due to medical reasons, according to an article in National Parks Traveler.

The 2015 ruling by MSPB Administrative Judge Pamela Jackson blasts NPS for arguing that Harris and Hempe did not use split purchases and followed policy.

"I am, frankly, astounded by the agency’s representations and arguments," Jackson wrote. "Unless it did not read its own OIG report, I cannot fathom how it could make such assertions. Clearly, its own OIG specifically found evidence of [Federal Acquisition Regulation] violations almost identical to the appellant’s allegations or disclosures."

Jackson ordered NPS to change a 2012 performance rating to "superior" and provide Carter with any associated back pay. She also ordered the agency to approve administrative leave — likely amounting to a few hours — for Carter’s visits to a counselor after a co-worker roughly grabbed her arm in a meeting.

But Jackson also dismissed several other claims. One of those was Carter’s allegation that Correa, the chief ranger, had sent retaliatory emails.

Carter asserted that Correa had sent emails with quotes she thought attacked whistleblowers. The example given: "A wise man/woman is superior to any insults which can be put upon him/her and the best reply to unseemly behavior is patience and moderation."

Carter did not submit evidence, and Jackson calls it "no more than a bare allegation."

Correa’s comments on the Florida Today website, however, are open for anyone to see.

Correa did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

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