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

The tab: $5,408.76 in collectible badges, emergency medical kits, a drill, and various other tools. According to the NPS, Danno had sweet-talked a desk employee at the park’s regional headquarters into offering him access to the room where she stored a collection of historic badges from various national park sites and missions—and then made off with them. According to Danno—and, more to the point, his extensive paper trail and line of witnesses—those badges had either been earned or gifted. The National Park Service pressed the issue, securing an indictment in May of 2008, and then taking the case to the federal court, where, as Danno was made well aware, the NPS almost never loses. But the evidence was overwhelmingly in Danno’s favor; after his supervisor revealed that he had transported Danno’s “stolen” property to his home in his own car, the jury needed just a few minutes to acquit Danno in February of 2009.

36 Rms Riv Vu: When Dan Snyder bought his mansion (left) from the late King Hussein in 2000, pesky trees from a national park blocked his view of the river. Not anymore (right).

With the inauguration of President Barack Obama, an avowed environmentalist who had pledged to clean up the worst abuses of the Bush administration, things finally seemed to be looking up for Danno. But a new administration and a shakeup at the Department of the Interior did nothing to change his fate. Even after a federal court struck down the charges, the NPS, whose internal management was largely untouched by the changes at the top, continued its campaign of retribution against Danno and continued to deny him back pay.

Then, that winter, the NPS filed an internal complaint accusing Danno of stealing the exact same items that a judge and jury had just acquitted him of taking. (Because it was a different disciplinary venue, it didn’t count as double jeopardy.) The NPS tasked the same investigator who brought the criminal case and the same administrator who had presided over the initial investigation with building the case. But rather than risk an embarrassing loss and reinstatement, the investigators simply sat on the case, leaving Danno in a legal limbo in which he could get paid but not work. Finally, in the summer of 2010, six years after Snyder chopped down the scenic easement, and a year and a half into Obama’s first term, Danno was quietly reinstated at C&O Canal Park. His new job? Managing concessions. (He also self-published a memoir of his career and travails at NPS.)

Nine years after the tree cutting, the only head to roll at the National Park Service has been Danno’s. In 2004, shortly after arranging the tree deal, Smith landed a plum job as superintendent of Colonial National Historic Park in Virginia, which he still holds. (He did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) Jennifer Mummart, spokeswoman for the National Capital Region office, deflected attempts to reach Brandt, who has stayed at his old job: “We appreciate the invitation, but have nothing further to add.” Mainella, now a lecturer at Clemson University and a board member of several environmental groups, declined to be interviewed for this story but provided a statement to Washington Monthly emphasizing her accomplishment with the NPS: “I would love to say that over my time 2001-2006 every decision was perfect but we all know that is not possible but I know we all tried to do the best for this great nation and its parks.”

Although details are scarce, the settlement Danno reached with the NPS last fall allows him to stay on pace to retire, as long as he takes a new job at a wilderness training center in Montana. He’s looking forward to getting back to the outdoors work that attracted him to the service in the first place, but it’s not what he envisioned when he moved his family east more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, his fellow NPS employees, who used to rate their agency as one of the best places to work in the federal government—and why wouldn’t it be?—now rate it as one of the worst, the consequence of Interior Department scandals during the Bush years coupled with the endless stream of budget cuts.

Over lunch at Harper’s Ferry, overlooking the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, the C&O towpath that did him in winding below us just out of sight, Danno insists he’s not angry about what happened. He just wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again. “Essentially, all Dan Snyder did was ask,” he says. “It was our job to turn him down.” Snyder, for his part, has never apologized for the trouble he caused others by cutting down those trees. A local realtor, however, estimated that the unobstructed view of the river has added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the value of his estate.

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


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