The National Park Service lost out on tens of thousands of dollars in potential revenue by not billing visitors to a government-owned lodge in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, the Interior Department’s internal watchdog reported today in a stern assessment of the agency’s management and operation of the facility.
The report, signed off on by Interior Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall and released today, provides a comprehensive look at how the Park Service has utilized the Brinkerhoff Lodge in Grand Teton National Park.
The lodge attracted controversy last year when Time first reported that Vice President Joe Biden, former U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, NPS Director Jon Jarvis and other senior officials had stayed at the four-bedroom log cabin located on the shore of Jackson Lake, seemingly for vacation at little or no cost to them (Greenwire, Oct. 29, 2014).
The Brinkerhoff has been closed since the IG began its investigation of the Park Service’s use of the lodge, which has culminated in the watchdog office’s final evaluation report.
The IG’s findings delve into not only who used the lodge and when, but also the Park Service’s billing practices as well as lodge security, fire safety and historical preservation. Auditors discovered that the Park Service has much to do to improve operations at the Brinkerhoff in several of those areas.
The lodge has had roughly 500 people stop by from 2011 to 2014, according to the inspector general. Policy established by Interior in 1992 dictates that the Brinkerhoff be used by only federal employees on official duty, yet the lodge has not always been used for government business.
To meet that "official use" requirement for the Brinkerhoff, park officials created an hourlong briefing about Grand Teton that guests had to attend. The IG found that since 2011, 10 stays at the lodge qualified as official use because guests attended the briefing.
Nevertheless, the official use policy hasn’t always been enforced.
"The policy regarding eligible stays is not only going unenforced, it has been relaxed over the years," said the department watchdog.
In addition, "billing rarely occurs," according to the IG, noting that the Park Service is losing money on running the Brinkerhoff.
"Even if the Park billed every guest, the amount charged would not cover the cost of operating the Lodge," said the report.
Analyzing park documents, IG investigators found that, from 2011 to 2014, more than half of guests’ overnight stays in the Brinkerhoff appeared to be by invitation from NPS or for vacation. To be more exact, of the 222 total nights of lodge use, 114 didn’t involve official business, according to the inspector general.
In addition, the majority of Brinkerhoff guests weren’t billed for the use of the lodge.
Auditors found nearly 85 percent of the lodge guests from 2011 to 2014 were not billed. That resulted in 186 nights at the Brinkerhoff for which NPS received no compensation, leading to $28,875 in lost revenue for the park.
In that same three-year period, the Park Service received only 11 payments, or $7,143, for use of the lodge. Four of those payments were billed within two weeks of a guest’s stay while the other seven were billed much later, some up to 40 months late.
Further, despite its prime location and historical furnishings, the Brinkerhoff was cheap lodging for government employees compared with other housing in the area. One appendix to the report shows the lodge’s charge of the federal per diem rate to stay there is vastly lower than nearby resorts and hotels.
Biden, other VIPs late to pay
In another appendix, the report also provides a comprehensive listing of who stayed at the Brinkerhoff, when and for what purpose.
Biden’s stay in August 2014, along with 12 additional guests, was classified as a "vacation stay" by the IG. The inspector general’s evaluation comes during a delicate time for the vice president as he considers launching a 2016 presidential campaign (Greenwire, Sept. 14).
Other stays by senior administration officials at the lodge — such as by Jackson, Jarvis, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — were categorized as vacation as well by the inspector general.
In response to the IG report, Jarvis disputed those findings, saying, "We disagree in a few instances with the report’s characterization of the type of the stay (official, invitational, or vacation)" at the Brinkerhoff.
Further, Obama administration officials were often late in paying for their stays at the lodge, according to another of the report’s appendixes.
In one instance, Jackson stayed at the Brinkerhoff in the summer of 2011 but didn’t pay $477 for her time there until November 2014. Duncan was at the lodge in August 2013 but didn’t pay $1,158 to the Park Service until November 2014, as well. Biden also paid $1,200 to NPS that same month, only a few months after his August 2014 stay at the lodge.
The Park Service received many of these payments soon after the Timereport on VIPs’ use of the Brinkerhoff ran in late October 2014.
A spokeswoman for the vice president told Greenwire last month that Biden always intended to pay for his family’s stay at the Brinkerhoff, and his office had reached out to Grand Teton National Park before his trip to ask about renting the log cabin.
NPS has been sensitive to the controversy around the Brinkerhoff. Park Service public affairs officials edited the lodge’s Wikipedia page following increased media coverage of the cabin’s use, according to the IG.
No security system for the lodge
The Brinkerhoff was built in 1947 and later purchased in 1955 by the Park Service. It was soon considered a retreat for the highest-level officials of the U.S. government, with past guests including former Presidents Nixon, Carter and George H.W. Bush.
Yet despite such senior officials visiting the lodge, its security was found lacking by the Interior IG.
Auditors found the Brinkerhoff has no alarm or security system. Instead, it is secured only by locks on its doors.
In addition, the lodge is at "high risk for severe damage" from fire, according to the IG. Emergency response time is at least 20 minutes, assuming someone is on site to call for help, and water to put out a fire at the lodge would have to be pumped from Jackson Lake.
There have been no reported fire or security incidents at the lodge, however.
The IG made several recommendations to the Park Service to improve its management of the Brinkerhoff, including drafting a security plan for the site as well as assessing its fire safety and billing practices for guests.
In response, Jarvis said NPS agrees with many of the watchdog’s recommendations, including ensuring all guests are billed for their stays at the Brinkerhoff.
Nevertheless, the Park Service believes it is still "appropriate" to charge overnight guests the federal per diem rate, which is much lower than lodging costs elsewhere in the area.
Jarvis said his agency expects to complete its work revamping the Brinkerhoff by June 2016, which should lead to the site being reopened for use by government officials.
"After these actions are completed, we will allow use of the Brinkerhoff for overnight stays associated with official duty travel," Jarvis said.