By Ken Olson
Winston Churchill is believed to have said, “When you’re going through hell, keep moving.”
Recently the United States government did a tawdry thing to a good man.
The Interior Department Inspector General (IG) publicly rebuked retired Acadia National Park Superintendent Sheridan Steele for a misjudgment Steele had already admitted to and apologized for. The IG report accused him of taking a $14,000 “illegal” vacation funded by private citizens—a cruise on a private yacht, plus airfare. The IG further claimed Steele received dubious payments from Schoodic Institute, a nonprofit friends group Steele helped form and nurture.
Let’s take these one at a time.
Steele accepted the family vacation and hid nothing. The gift, a surprise to him, was announced at a pre-retirement party in 2015 two months shy of his retirement, before an audience and later in newspapers. The vacation came after he retired. There was no quid pro quo, implied or in deed, during or after Steele’s professional tenure. He offered no favors to the gift givers, who sought nothing and have strong records of charitable support for Acadia. One chaired the board of Schoodic Institute, an unpaid position. The institute ran the event and did not contribute to the vacation.
“In hindsight, I should have called for an expert opinion,” said Steele in a memo. To better understand this remark, consider that the IG stated the guests of honor (Steele and wife and their two children) should have paid for their dinners.
The second matter, alleged salary or wage payments by Schoodic Institute to Steele, is crazy.
The IG claimed Schoodic Institute paid Steele for post-retirement work, an untrue accusation indicating a superficial understanding of Steele’s arrangement with the institute and of nonprofits. Steele took no salary or wage and received normal travel reimbursements. Many charities offer out-of-pocket expenses as standard procedure.
“I made it clear,” Steele said, “that it was to be unpaid but I would like to have some limited travel expenses reimbursed since I would need to fly from our home in Colorado to Maine a few times each year … I never contemplated seeking employment after retirement and had no interest in anything other than a volunteer situation. People volunteer … when they believe in the purpose and work of that organization and they wish to ‘give something back’ or contribute to that organization’s success. This was exactly my motivation.”
No bribes, fraud, abuse, government money misspent, property misused, travel regulations subverted, harm to park interests or questionable payments by nonprofits. Yet had he consented to an in-person interview during the one-and-a-half-year-long investigation, Interior lawyers would not have permitted Steele to record the proceedings or have his wife present as a witness.
It’s also likely some Interior employees had personal scores with Steele, as recently happened when a respected Yellowstone superintendent was summarily asked to step away.
From my decade-plus as president and CEO of Friends of Acadia and my current volunteerism with a similar nonprofit, I have been reaffirmed in an unhappy conclusion: The closer you get to Washington, D.C.’s, executive branch politics, the more likely a minority of its practitioners misconstrues charitable motive and equates it to venal purpose.
Some Interior legal minds liken philanthropy—which means “love of humankind generally”—to political fundraising, the dirtiest kind. That attitude makes it harder for public-private partnerships to function, especially in times when Congress starves parks financially.
Regardless, the 200-plus friends groups manage to donate millions to national parks yearly—gladly, proudly, lovingly and with no recompense. That’s partly because the preponderant mass of Interior employees—at park-level, in regional and national offices, partnership and ethics offices, non-investigatory legal counsel precincts and in the rivers and trails unit, for example—understand philanthropy. This majority legion of public servants does all in its power to drive citizen altruism forward.
Under-informed forces lynched a superintendent who has an enlightened performance record. Sheridan Steele and I toiled closely and productively over years. He is a person of probity, dedicated to civic mission, not personal enrichment. He propelled the parks he led to higher excellences, including at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Fort Scott National Historic Site and Rocky Mountain.
You cannot un-ring a bell, but truth-telling can dim its malicious toll, dull its vacant noise. A few actors visited public misery on a stellar 38-year professional run, but Steele maintains compass: “Fortunately, I have not lost my desire to ‘serve the greater good’ and I will continue to try to advance the cause of conservation and national parks in retirement.” All who know him are grateful for that.
Still, it’s a shame to watch government at its worst sandbag its best.
Ken Olson was president and CEO of Friends of Acadia from 1995 to 2006.