Features

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


Little big man: Redskins owner Dan Snyder makes a fortune off his hapless and offensively named team—and he can see the Potomac River from his mansion thanks to a favor from the Bush administration.

There are sports franchise owners who, through civic-mindedness and steely pursuit of victory, win the admiration of their fans. Then there is Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. Since the self-made advertising mogul bought the storied football franchise fourteen years ago, the team has had only two winning seasons, a sorry record widely attributed to Snyder’s penchant for micromanaging coaches and throwing money at expensive past-their-prime veterans rather than finding new talent. Yet that losing record hasn’t kept the billionaire Snyder from reaping record profits by exploiting every conceivable revenue stream—from jacked-up ticket prices to luxury skyboxes for lobbyists to charging fans to watch hitherto free team workouts. He sued a seventy-three-year-old grandmother who, after losing most of her assets in the housing crash, couldn’t afford to keep up payment on her season tickets. And when a Washington City Paper writer protested, Snyder sued him, too.

Two recent events further highlight Snyder’s imperiousness. The first is a renewed chorus of demands by everyone from Native American activists to the D.C. city council that the team change its inherently offensive name—to which Snyder last year responded, “NEVER—you can use caps.”

The second is the settling last fall by the National Park Service (NPS) of a whistleblower complaint over a secret sweetheart deal Snyder extracted nine years ago to give his Maryland home an unobstructed view of the Potomac River. It was a small concession in the grand scheme of things, the kind that the rich and powerful frequently wheedle out of government, especially back then, during the presidency of George W. Bush, when such favors were flowing like booze in a skybox. But its discovery set off a decade-long campaign of bureaucratic retribution over two administrations that nearly sent an innocent man to prison. The story of that little favor wonderfully (if depressingly) encapsulates the essential character of our times, in which average people who play by the rules are made to suffer by the blithe manipulation of those rules by the people at the top.

The tale begins in 2000, when Snyder paid $10 million for a riverside estate in the Washington suburb of Potomac, a posh neighborhood in a posh community typified by the recently deceased gray-haired government worker whose property he had purchased—King Hussein of Jordan. Hussein had outfitted the grounds with a sprawling side house for the servants, in which Snyder would force prospective Redskins hires to stay when they came in for interviews; the maroon-and-yellow basketball court was Snyder’s addition.

It was a nice enough house. The home had a helicopter pad out back and a white colonnade along the porch on a hill a few hundred feet from the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a charming waterway first envisioned by George Washington that, along with a towpath and surrounding forest, is now owned and managed by the NPS. Among Washington’s ruling class, the bluffs flanking the Potomac River northwest of the city are the closest one gets to a penthouse on Central Park, but Snyder quickly encountered a problem: he couldn’t see any water from his waterfront property. The park’s trees were in the way.

Since the park was designated a national historic site in 1971, any alterations to the land, no matter how small, have had to first pass through an intensive period of paperwork, environmental impact statements, and waiting. For thirty years, no modifications were granted.

But Snyder caught a break. President George W. Bush’s new administration was placing well-connected, industry-friendly officials in powerful positions, nowhere more so than at the Department of the Interior. The new interior secretary was Gale Norton, a loyal Republican who would eventually leave her post to become a lobbyist for Shell. Her number two was Steven Griles, a coal industry lobbyist who in the Reagan administration had been deputy director of the Office of Surface Mining under the infamous Interior Secretary James Watt. To run the National Park Service, Bush tapped Fran Mainella, who had worked closely with the president’s older brother, Jeb, as director of Florida’s parks. Mainella was a newcomer to D.C. and to the notoriously insular NPS, so a veteran operative was placed below her as special assistant. His name was P. Daniel Smith, a onetime National Rifle Association lobbyist and Hill aide who had been a protégé of Griles at Interior.

Smith gravitated toward a role as the office’s political facilitator, one he played with unusual gusto. When Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, Mainella’s friend and fellow Floridian, had concerns about trees on the George Washington Memorial Parkway blocking the view of a condo he wanted to purchase, Mainella dispatched Smith to advise him. Another time, Smith got a call from Griles complaining that a film crew working with an NPS permit on the Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure had parked a production truck in front of a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, interfering with the valet parking. Smith personally met with the restaurant’s manager and the film’s assistant director and got the truck moved. The restaurant, it turns out, was owned by Jack Abramoff. (Smith later told investigators he didn’t know at the time that Abramoff was the owner. Smith was not charged with any wrongdoing, but Griles eventually went to prison for lying to federal authorities about favors he did for the notorious lobbyist.)

One of Smith’s first orders of business after joining the NPS was to meet with Snyder’s attorney at the Department of the Interior headquarters in 2001, ostensibly to discuss two issues concerning the Redskins owner—a renovation of the mansion that would require a permit because it affected the park’s sightlines, and the possibility of chopping down the roughly 140 trees blocking his view of the water. In January of 2002, Snyder offered the park superintendent, a crusty, thirty-one-year park service veteran, a $25,000 “cash contribution” to the park in exchange for a permit to cut down a clearing. The deal was quickly rejected, despite a late intervention from Smith. But the outside pressure was only beginning.

A year or two after Snyder was rebuffed by the NPS, Mainella, her husband, and a small group of Bush administration officials attended a Redskins game against the New York Giants at the team’s stadium, FedEx Field, in Landover, Maryland. In a foggy and often contradictory interview with the inspector general’s office, Smith later alleged that during the game, someone close to Snyder broached the subject of the trees and asked Mainella to put someone on the case. Then she put in a call to Smith. (Mainella initially told investigators she couldn’t recall attending any such game, or having a conversation with Snyder or his associates about the trees, but later admitted she had gone to a game in the fall of 2003; the Redskins’ attorneys said they had no record of Mainella meeting with the owner.)

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.

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.

Comments

(You may use HTML tags for style)

comments powered by Disqus