- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

A U.S. senator has asked the Department of the Interior to delay disciplinary action against U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers until charges against her can be reviewed by his committee.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat and the ranking minority member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has asked Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton to explain the charges that Chief Chambers improperly lobbied Congress and disclosed secret budget details through public comments she made to reporters.

“I am writing you… for information on this matter and to ask you not to take any further disciplinary action against Chief Chambers until that information has been provided and until the [committee] has had an opportunity to review it,” he wrote in a letter dated Friday.

The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has oversight of the National Park Service and authorizes its annual budget. The National Park Service oversees the U.S. Park Police.

John Wright, spokesman for the Department of Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, said yesterday the agency had just received Mr. Bingaman’s letter. Mr. Wright also said privacy rules prevent him from talking about the charges against Chief Chambers.

“The Interior Department has been taking a lot of hits because it is inappropriate to debate or make fair decisions about federal employees in a public forum or through the media,” he said.

It remains vague under those same privacy rules whether the Interior Department is obligated to provide information about the charges against Chief Chambers to Mr. Bingaman or any member of Congress other than a committee chairman with relevant jurisdiction.

On Thursday, Park Service officials notified Chief Chambers of their intention to fire her through a “proposal for removal.”

Park Service officials said Chief Chambers broke a federal rule against public comment on budget discussions and another barring her from lobbying when she made comments about the police force, which she described as undermanned and underfunded.

Chief Chambers was given 15 days to respond to the charges.

Two sources close to the situation said the main concern about Chief Chambers’ comments was that she initiated conversations with reporters in which she cited specific staffing figures for patrols around national monuments, which have been considered potential targets since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Park Service’s handling of the situation, yesterday issued a statement denouncing the way Chief Chambers has been treated and calling for a congressional review of the staffing issues she raised.

“From all public accounts, it appears that U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers has been uniquely criticized and punished for speaking out about issues all Americans are concerned with this holiday: their safety and security,” Mr. Moran said.

Mr. Moran, who argued for an additional $12 million in federal funding for the Park Police last year, said his ability to act is limited because Democrats are the minority party in Congress. Still, he said he has no plans to use his position on the House Appropriations Committee, which funds the Park Service, as leverage to force officials to reconsider their decision to fire Chief Chambers.

“We’re not going to punish the Park Service for this situation because that wouldn’t make any sense for our constituents,” he said. “She needs a Republican sponsor really. My guess is the decision will stand.”

Chief Chambers, 46, was named Park Police chief in December 2001 after being police chief in Durham, N.C., for four years. Before that, she spent 21 years with the Prince George’s County Police Department. She is the first woman to be named chief of the Park Police.

Chief Chambers, who has received support from the United States Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, is well-liked by officers in the 620-member department.

She was criticized by members of Congress for her handling of a two-day standoff with a North Carolina tobacco farmer who drove a tractor into a pond on the Mall in March and caused severe traffic delays throughout the city.

In addition to the National Mall and parks in the District, Park Police also patrol the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York Harbor and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

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