'Unfounded' Bullying Accusations Sidelined Head Of Grand Canyon For 5 Months

Originally published on March 5, 2019 6:24 pm

The details on the lengthy federal investigation that exonerated the embattled head of Grand Canyon National Park of creating a hostile work environment were released Tuesday.

Park Superintendent Christine Lehnertz was cleared in February of any wrongdoing following allegations she bullied and retaliated against some male leaders at the park and misspent funds, according to a report from the Interior Department's inspector general.

The findings come almost five months after Lehnertz was hastily reassigned from her post running one of the country's most popular national parks.

"We found no evidence that Lehnertz created a hostile work environment," the report said. "Most of the employees [interviewed] indicated that Lehnertz was generally liked at the park and reported that Lehnertz did not treat men or women differently and held everyone to the same standard."

Grand Canyon's history of harassment

This isn't the first time that an official at Grand Canyon National Park has been dogged by allegations of harassment. In 2014, more than a dozen female park rangers wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell describing a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and workplace hostility in the park's River District. A federal investigation later found a total of 35 employees who had witnessed or experienced harassment and hostility there. The scandal made national headlines, led to a congressional hearing and eventually the ouster of then-Superintendent Dave Uberuaga.

Lehnertz took over the park in a push to improve morale and establish stability and decorum.

During a 2016 interview shortly after she was hired, Lehnertz told the public radio collaborative Fronteras Desk that in order to clean up house there, she needed to set expectations.

"A leader has to be very clear, at the outset, so there's just no question in anyone's mind that there are rewards for those behaviors that are positive and consequences for those that are negative," she said.

Current and former National Park Service employees said Lehnertz was different from previous managers at the park. She really listened.

"When you speak with her, you feel like you've known her forever and she's your best friend," said Martha Hahn, the former science and resource management division chief at Grand Canyon National Park. "I mean that's that's how comfortable she makes you feel."

That listening, Hahn said, translated into action. Lehnertz helped force out some employees and created a team tasked with understanding and stopping the cycles of abuse and discrimination at the park. Hahn said Lehnertz did more than address the park's long-term history of sexual harassment and abuse.

"She's also very serious about everyone pulling their load," she said. "And I think that was the part that bothered some people who had spent a lot of time in their career not being pushed like that."

Leadership style

It was widely known that a handful of managers didn't appreciate Lehnertz's leadership style. John Dillon, executive director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association, said he heard the complaints firsthand from Park Service supervisors who clashed with her.

"I do know a handful of people in the park that have have felt very frustrated with the new superintendent's style," he said.

Dillon represents river rafting companies that contract with the National Park Service. He works with employees there and said a few managers felt as if they were walking on eggshells after Lehnertz became superintendent.

"I think the concern is, 'I have another 10 years and I don't want to say something or do something wrong or end up in the crosshairs of somebody who is on a mission to clean house,' " he said.

It's unclear whether that atmosphere led a senior official at the park to file the hostile work environment claim that launched the months-long investigation into Lehnertz. It was spurred after she proposed suspending the employee for not providing important reports and for missing a meeting, according to the Inspector General report. Lehnertz was also accused of bullying male leaders at the park.

However, the Inspector General report said the one-day suspension was warranted and the accusations "unfounded."

Lingering questions

The federal investigation was launched in October. Soon after, the National Park Service removed Lehnertz from her post and reassigned her to an unspecified position at regional headquarters in Denver.

In an October 2018 email to employees obtained by E&E News, Acting Regional Director Kate Hammond said Lehnertz was reassigned "to protect the integrity of the OIG's investigation into these allegations."

Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service during the Obama administration, said that removing a park superintendent like this is rare and that he believes, in this case, the agency overreacted. He hired Lehnertz for the job running Grand Canyon in 2016.

"I know Chris very well," he said. "She volunteered to go to Grand Canyon to take on the issues there with sexual harassment. So I would've thought this seemed a little odd to me that a subordinate was claiming harassment by Chris Lehnertz. I would've wanted to better understand the situation before I tried to move her out of her job."

The National Park Service did not make Chris Lehnertz available for an interview. But in an emailed statement, an agency spokesperson said she's "a talented and dedicated executive of the National Park Service and her commitment to building a respectful and inclusive workplace is sincere, broadly demonstrated and widely respected."

The agency also said it wouldn't comment on personnel actions, the investigation or when Lehnertz would return to Grand Canyon.

The park turned 100 years old last week, and Lehnertz wasn't there to celebrate.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration among Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2019 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The head of Grand Canyon National Park did not create a hostile work environment for her employees. That's the conclusion of a months-long investigation by the Interior Department's inspector general. Nate Hegyi of member station KUER in Salt Lake City has more.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: The original complaint came from a senior official at Grand Canyon National Park. It said that park Superintendent Chris Lehnertz created a hostile work environment there. She was accused of bullying male leaders at one of the country's most popular national parks. The complaint came after Lehnertz proposed suspending that senior official for a day because he missed a meeting and didn't file reports. The inspector general found the suspension reasonable. And the investigation has cleared Lehnertz of wrongdoing, saying there was no evidence bullying happened and the claims were unfounded. Lehnertz's former colleague at Grand Canyon, Martha Hahn, ran the science division there. She was not only surprised by the allegations...

MARTHA HAHN: I was angered.

HEGYI: Angered because Lehnertz was brought in to stop harassment at Grand Canyon after stories of abuse there made national headlines a few years ago.

HAHN: And there's no way she could be culpable in something like that.

HEGYI: Multiple former and current park employees interviewed for this story agreed. They say Lehnertz is doing a great job cleaning house and stopping the cycles of harassment and discrimination at the park. But they do say she's a tough manager. John Dillon heard some supervisors complain firsthand. He represents river rafting companies in the area. He doesn't work for Grand Canyon, but he works with employees there.

JOHN DILLON: They're going to be slow to tell you or not tell you that as bluntly, but I think that that's the concern - is I have, you know, another 10 years, and I don't want to say something wrong or do something wrong or end up in the crosshairs of somebody who's on an - you know, a mission to clean house.

HEGYI: It's unclear whether this atmosphere spurred the senior official to file his hostile work environment complaint against Lehnertz. Still, when the investigation was launched in October, the National Park Service quickly and controversially removed Lehnertz from her job running Grand Canyon. The agency says it reassigned her to protect the integrity of the investigation. Jon Jarvis was the National Park Service director under the Obama administration. He hired Chris Lehnertz to run Grand Canyon and address sexual harassment there. He says removing a park superintendent like this is rare, and he thinks the agency overreacted.

JON JARVIS: I would've thought this seems a little odd to me that a subordinate was claiming harassment by Chris Lehnertz, and I would've wanted to better understand the situation before I took that kind of action to move her out of the job.

HEGYI: The Park Service declined to comment on the inspector general's report, calling it a personnel matter. The agency did not make Chris Lehnertz available for an interview, but said in a statement she's a talented, dedicated and respectful executive. The agency wouldn't say when Lehnertz is returning to Grand Canyon. The park turned a hundred years old last week, and Lehnertz wasn't there to celebrate. For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Salt Lake City.

CORNISH: And this story came from the Mountain West News Bureau, a public media collaboration in the Rocky Mountain states. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.