Ex-chief of Park Police denounces firing
Chambers: Administration 'silencing' dissenting views
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One day after she was fired, former U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers accused the Bush administration Saturday of silencing dissenting views in the rank and file.
Chambers' departure may not garner the same spotlight as those of former counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, but it appears to fall into a similar category: officials who leave or are forced out after questioning Bush administration policies.
Chambers said that she didn't expect to be fired seven months after the Interior Department put her on administrative leave with pay for talking with reporters and congressional staffers about budget woes on the 620-officer force.
She was fired Friday, just two and half hours after her attorneys filed a demand for immediate reinstatement through the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency that ensures federal employees are protected from management abuses.
"It wasn't the reaction we expected," she said. "But we weren't surprised.
"But it's not about me," she added. "I'm a player in it. It's got far-reaching implications.
"The American people should be afraid of this kind of silencing of professionals in any field," she said. "We should be very concerned as American citizens that people who are experts in their field either can't speak up, or, as we're seeing now in the parks service, won't speak up."
National Park Service officials said Chambers broke rules barring public comment about budget discussions and prohibiting lobbying by someone in her position.
Chambers said she did nothing wrong except argue for adequate funding for the Park Police, which falls under NPS authority -- and perhaps fail to understand that she was required to "toe the party line."
"I came from outside and was naive about federal agencies," she said. "I had no idea that's what they wanted me to do. I really believed that's what they wanted, for me to be frank with them."
The Bush administration says the Park Police budget has increased during its tenure, but critics argue that the increase has not offset inflation and additional duties.
According to a study conducted by the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the entire park service operates on about two-thirds of the budget it needs -- about $600 million short -- and that about $50 million of that shortfall stems from duties related to homeland security at the so-called "icons."
"Icon" duty refers to protecting locations such as the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument and the Golden Gate Bridge from terrorist attack -- duties that fall to the Park Police.
In an affidavit filed in her effort to be reinstated, Chambers said her troubles with the bureaucrats in the park service and the Interior Department began with budget processing in 2003.
"Each time I would sound [the alarm] just a little louder," she said, "but always internally. It culminated with the notice I put on the director of the park service ... that we have problems."
In that November 28 memo, Chambers wrote that the budget crisis put new hires in doubt, potentially bringing the Park Police staff to its lowest level since 1987, and seriously undermined her officers' ability to protect the "icons."
"My professional judgment, based upon 27 years of police service, six years as chief of police, and countless interactions with police professionals across the country, is that we are at a staffing and resource crisis in the United States Park Police -- a crisis that, if allowed to continue, will almost surely result in the loss of life or the destruction of one of our nation's most valued symbols of freedom and democracy," she wrote.
A week earlier, Chambers had spoken with a Washington Post reporter about the budget shortfalls, and the article appeared December 2. Three days later, the chief was on administrative leave.
Chambers said her story effectively put a chill on National Park superintendents who were facing their own shortfalls. She said she has spoken with current officials who know the situation but fear for their jobs.
According to the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees, a group of more than 250 former NPS officials, the Interior Department sent out memos to park superintendents to make further reductions -- and "to mislead the news media and public about the service cuts in order to avoid ... 'public controversy.'"
One of the memos suggested "service level adjustments" including closing the parks' visitors centers on federal holidays, eliminating guided tours, closing the visitors centers two days a week and closing them for an entire season.
The memo argues against discussing the situation with the media, then adds that "if you feel you must inform the public through a press release," refer to "service level adjustments" rather than "cuts."
The cuts rip into services. Everglades National Park, for example, cut ranger-led education programs from 115 per week to fewer than 40; Death Valley National Park cut staff, leaving ancient rock art unprotected; and Great Smoky Mountains -- the nation's most-visited park -- has cut all seasonal hires for this year.
CNN's KC Wildmoon contributed to this report.