The Interior Department said Wednesday it welcomes the mass resignation of nearly all members of a key National Park Service advisory panel, saying it soon will appoint new members and hold a meeting with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift accused some of the panel members of choosing to ignore sexual harassment while praising a repeat offender of ethics violations in expressing the agency's praise for the departures.
“We welcome their resignations and would expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at National Parks and praise a man as 'inspiring' who had been blasted by the inspector general for ethics and management failures, all while taking credit for the extensive work of private companies during the NPS centennial celebration," Swift said in a statement to the Washington Examiner.
Nearly 39 percent of National Park Service employees say they have been harassed in the past year, according to a survey commissioned by the Interior Department last year. The problems extend years before Zinke took over the agency.
Meanwhile, the ethics violations that Swift refers to stem from an investigation by the Interior Department's inspector general, in which former National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis was investigated for violations of ethics rules in writing a book without agency approval. A subsequent investigation showed that a national park law enforcement supervisor at Canaveral National Seashore "made an unwanted sexual advance toward his subordinate, a law enforcement employee, in December 2015," according to a June 2016 inspector general's report.
Jarvis had been slammed by lawmakers at oversight hearings in 2016 for the sexual misconduct under his watch. Swift said the advisers had supported Jarvis.
Ten of the 12 members of the advisory panel resigned this week for being ignored after repeated requests for Zinke to meet with them to discuss the administration's agenda for national parks. A number of requests to engage with Zinke “have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new department team are clearly not part of the agenda," the members' resignation letter read.
Swift said it is "patently false" to say the agency had not engaged the board. She explained that as recently as Jan. 8 "we were working with the board to renew their charter, schedule a meeting and fill vacancies."
She said two of the panel's members "who claim" to be resigning had terms that expired in July and November. Both did not seek reappointment.
"Their hollow and dishonest political stunt should be a clear indicator of the intention of this group,” Swift said.
She said the board traditionally meets at the end of each year, which the secretary rarely attends. She noted that former President Barack Obama's Interior secretaries had attended meetings with the board only once. "However, since the board's charter expired in late December, we were working with them to renew the charter and hold a meeting," she said.
Swift said the agency is "happy to report" that it has "a number of individuals who have expressed interest in joining the board." She added that the department "will now fast-track filling these new vacancies with people who are actually dedicated to working with the department to better our national parks."
The agency expects to hold a meeting soon with a "full board," Swift said.