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January/ February 2014 Smokey and the Bandit

How a secret government sweetheart deal for Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder wrecked a great park ranger’s career.

By Tim Murphy

What’s clear is this: by April of 2004, with his new home nearing completion and still no progress on the trees, Snyder was growing frustrated and Smith was determined to settle the matter. That spring, according to the inspector general’s report, Smith met with Snyder’s attorney for a business lunch at the Potomac estate, where Snyder had just completed an expansion to build a massive new ballroom, and followed it up with a phone call to the park official who dealt with land acquisitions. Over the phone, the official told the investigators, Smith seemed agitated that nothing had been done yet, and suggested an exit strategy, which he later alleged had come from the Redskins’ attorney: most of the trees in question were nonnative; why not clear-cut them and call it an exotic-plant extermination program?

That June, Smith and his NPS colleagues, including the C&O Canal’s new interim superintendent, Kevin Brandt, met with Snyder and his attorney at the mansion. There, they sketched out the details of a possible deal.

They agreed to grant Snyder a special use permit to clear 200 feet of trees on the slope behind his house, on the condition that he replace them with 600 native saplings. No one, however, had sought the permission of Montgomery County, Maryland, which had joint custody of the C&O Canal land. Nor had anyone commissioned an environmental assessment, as required by law. And they had ignored the recommendation of the park’s horticulture specialists, who warned that clear-cutting even exotic plants would have adverse affects effects on the ecosystem. Snyder got to work immediately.

Later that month, a complaint from one of Snyder’s neighbors about men with chain saws clear-cutting the scenic easement behind the team owner’s house made its way to the C&O Canal’s new chief ranger, Robert M. Danno (pictured at right). Recently arrived in Washington, Danno was a distinguished NPS veteran, having spent a long career out west—fighting Rocky Mountain forest fires, pulling tourists from a mudslide, and rappelling down a sheer cliff in pitch darkness to rescue a group of scientists. When Yellowstone reintroduced wolves in 1995, Danno was there, literally carrying the first alpha female to the transport caravan. He can recite the agency’s authorizing legislation from memory. When I met him this past October at Harper’s Ferry, where he is on a first-name basis with the volunteers at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters, he wore a giant gold-and-emerald ring on his finger, a custom-made piece of bling to commemorate his three decades in the NPS. “I was a little overinvested,” he conceded.

With the earnestness of a Boy Scout (which he once was, of course), Danno immediately brought the clear-cutting complaint to the attention of his boss, Kevin Brandt, and as the park’s top law enforcement officer, he requested permission to investigate what had happened.

But Brandt called him off, saying he would handle the incident himself.

Then … crickets. When the Washington Post reported on the neighbor complaints that November, after Snyder’s crew had finished what it started, an NPS spokeswoman first expressed surprise—and then called back to explain that it was a routine culling of exotic plants, albeit an extermination program that seemed to be taking place only in Snyder’s backyard.

It wasn’t the only instance in which Danno felt his superiors were ignoring his warnings. C&O Canal had begun leasing historic properties to private renters as part of a new program designed to promote cost-effective restoration. But Danno discovered that one property in particular, the Burnside House, had fallen into serious disrepair. (Investigators found the place littered with human feces and the bones of a dead goat.) Throughout 2004, Danno relayed neighbors’ complaints and asked permission to raid the property and evict the tenants. It never came.

It soon became apparent to Danno that his aggressiveness was not appreciated by his superiors. Fearful about losing his job, he kept quiet. Then, in March of 2005, Danno was told to hand over his gun and his badge and to empty out his desk. He was being reassigned to a desk job at the George Washington Memorial Parkway while the NPS pursued a number of disciplinary charges against him. Danno beat back the charges. He had secured a replacement the day he was accused of skipping work and leaving the park unsupervised; he had a paper trail to support the Taser he was alleged to have purchased without permission; and he had an audio of the police dispatch he was accused of not having responded to. The independent review board recommended that Danno be restored to his old law enforcement post.

But Brandt brushed them off, and had Danno transferred once more—to a posting at Fort Hunt Park in suburban Virginia. A former chief ranger at Bryce Canyon National Park, a veteran of Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, Danno was relegated to a job processing picnic permits at a thirteen-acre municipal park in Virginia with four tables. The two-hour drive from his home in West Virginia every morning took him past the old park headquarters on the C&O Canal, but he was persona non grata inside.

That was enough for Danno. He filed a formal whistleblower complaint with the Office of the Inspector General over Snyder’s trees that summer. In the meantime, Brandt tried again to have Danno disciplined, bringing the same set of charges that had just been knocked down to another disciplinary board. Weeks before his hearing, in the late spring of 2006, the inspector general released its report looking into Danno’s allegations. The result was damning: the report called NPS’s permission to allow the tree cutting an “unprecedented decision” resulting from “undue influence” and said that Smith had “inappropriately used his position to apply pressure and circumvent NPS procedures.” It said Brandt had told investigators that he had agreed to go along with the plan so as to be a “team player” so soon after taking the job. Snyder was found to have broken no law, although he was ultimately forced to reimburse the park $45,000 in maintenance costs and pay $37,000 to a tree bank.

But the inspector general’s report also left little ambiguity within the NPS about just who the anonymous whistleblower had been. When Danno’s case came before the regional disciplinary board, he discovered that his fate was in the hands of the woman who had been Mainella’s chief of staff when Snyder removed the trees. This time, the outcome was different. He was suspended without pay and demoted from chief ranger. And when that failed to drive Danno out of the agency, they played hardball.

In August of 2007, while Danno was in Colorado Springs for his son’s first day at the Air Force Academy, his West Virginia farm was raided by U.S. Marshals. He flew home, only to find out that the feds had issued a warrant for his arrest and had classified him as a threat to the public, and perhaps himself. Danno spent a night drinking alone on his boat in the Potomac, and in the morning sped upstream to the C&O Canal boat launch, where he was arrested by an NPS SWAT team and charged with theft of federal property.

Tim Murphy is a reporter in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Mother Jones.

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