Opinion: Parks Head Caught in Ethics Controversy is Wrong Man for the Job

David Uberuaga at the Grand Canyon. Photo: NPS

David Uberuaga should not be the superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park. He might be an awesome administrator, a conscientious steward of public lands, smart as the day is long, and a great guy, but his conduct in the matter of a highly questionable real estate deal while stationed at Mount Rainier National Park shows a lack of judgment that should preclude him from overseeing one of America’s premier treasures, as he is now.

In 2002, while deputy superintendent at Rainier, Uberuaga sold his home to Peter Whittaker of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., which at the time had the sole rights to lead climbers on Mt. Rainier. The selling price was $425,000, more than three times the assessed value, an amount federal investigators called “crazy”. Because it was so far above value, a conventional loan was unavailable, so Uberuaga financed the deal and Whittaker paid him principle and 7 percent interest over five years.

Over that five years, the park rewrote its rules on the guiding concession, with Uberuaqua directing the process. Prior to the new rules, RMI was given 100 percent of the concession. The initial draft divided the concession equally between RMI and two other guiding services, but when it was finalized RMI ended up with 50 percent and the other services splitting the remainder.

ADDITIONAL READING

  • For Adventure Journal’s coverage of this story, click here.
  • To see the Investigator General’s report, go here.
  • To read the transcript of investigator’s interview of Uberuaga, click here.
Uberuaga did not recuse himself from the rewrite, even though he’d been recused from overseeing concessions a few years prior when his kids held seasonal jobs with RMI. In May 2006, at the completion of the new concession rules process, he signed a conflict of interest statement that said “I am not aware of any matter…which might place me in a position of conflict, real or apparent…” At the time he signed it, Uberuaga was continuing to receive house payments from Whittaker and did so until 2008.

Both Uberuaga and Whittaker have denied that the inflated price was a kickback in exchange for favorable treatment. Uberuaga passed a lie detector test, and federal investigators ultimately decided not to press charges. Uberuaga was given a reprimand, promoted to Rainier superintendent, was sent to Yosemite for a year as acting superintendent, and, in June, was given the highly coveted promotion to run Grand Canyon National Park.

Investigators apparently found no conscious malfeasance in the real estate deal. Whittaker is a smart guy, and even he acknowledges that if they’d arranged the house as a kickback scheme, it would have been a pretty lousy one. I’m inclined, if for nothing less than the sake of argument, to give them the benefit of the doubt that there was no clearly stated quid pro quo. Viewed through the dynamics of the small community that is Mount Rainier, Whittaker’s purchase of the property can be seen as a shrewd move: He snatched up two acres of prime real estate directly across the street from RMI, enabling the business to expand without moving and keeping his competitors from setting up shop a stone’s throw away. As long as it was legal and within the lines of propriety, most business folks would be happy to pay a premium for such a property.

Uberuaga, however, made misstep after misstep. He sought advice from the park service’s legal counsel about selling his house to Whittaker and was told it was okay so long as he also offered it to the public, which he did — for a mere two weeks. It was such a narrow window of time, investigators clearly saw it as designed to “pass the smell test” for ethics overseers. He entered into a business relationship with one of his park’s main concessionaires, yet avoided mentioning it directly. As he told investigators, “I wasn’t trying to hide it. I wasn’t trying to blab it either.”

He also didn’t recuse himself when it was blindingly obvious he should have done so. He dismissed his denial of conflict of interest in 2006 by saying he thought he was signing a confidentiality agreement — yet the Seattle Times reports Uberuaga signed at least six federal ethics documents during this period and never provided full disclosure of the transaction or ongoing business relationship.

His responses to investigators have suggested a man who was playing dumb, who was in fact dumb, or who had extraordinarily bad judgment in issues of his work conduct and the appearance of conflict. When pressed about the tiny public selling window, Uberuaga said, “I look at that now and say, yes, why just two weeks?” He explained not recusing himself by saying, “My rationale at the time was that all my work would be reviewed by others.” And his boss, Jonathan Jarvis, then Rainier superintendent and now head of the entire NPS, knew about the real estate transaction, so, Uberuaga said, “”I felt like what I did with my disclosure was enough, really. Otherwise, someone would have said something to me.”

It is reasonable to expect someone to try to get the highest price for their property, and it’s reasonable that Whittaker paid more than assessed value. What’s unacceptable is Uberuaga’s clear avoidance of disclosing the depth of his financial involvement with a concessionaire and of his lack of recusal during the drafting and implementation of Mount Rainier’s new concession rules. Those situations are exactly why ethic laws exist, and Uberuaga, then in line to become the head of the park, either ignored or misinterpreted policy.

Nearly as disturbing is that his boss, Jarvis, not only gave him a slap on the wrist in the form of a reprimand, but then promoted him to his current position at Grand Canyon. Although it’s unclear exactly what Jarvis knew, he was well aware of Uberuaga’s ongoing relationship with RMI. When Uberuaga’s three children worked for the guide service as seasonal help, and Jarvis took the concessions authority away from him.

“It has come to my attention that there may be the appearance of conflict of interest by any involvement of…Deputy Superintendent Dave Uberuaga and the concessions program…To ensure that ANY potential appearance of a conflict of interest is removed…as long as Dave’s children remain employed in any way by RMI or any other concessionaire, Dave will not have any involvement in” the concessions program, Jarvis wrote.

And yet, when it came time to write the new rules, there was no recusal. And when it came time to select the new head of one of America’s crown jewel parks, his old boss tapped him to take over. It was not just one failure of leadership, but two.

People make mistakes, and they shouldn’t be subject to a lifetime of condemnation for them. Perhaps the whole story isn’t yet known and more details will be revealed that will paint Uberuaga in a better light (though the documents released under the Freedom of Information Act seem to sketch a pretty clear picture). And perhaps the decision by federal prosecutors might be the right call. A good public servant shouldn’t be thrown out of the park service for one slip-up, at least not when there’s no evidence of criminal intent.

But America’s national parks deserve stewards whose reputations are not sullied, whose judgment isn’t clouded, who have risen and proven themselves to be the best, with no black marks on their records and nothing but the utmost confidence in them to do their jobs appropriately. A man who embraces an ethically suspect relationship, who tries to keep it quiet, and then can’t see that it must be reported in depth does not deserve to be the head of Grand Canyon National Park.

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