Gagging the Fuzz, Part 2

The laughably weak case against Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers.

Stalinism may be dead in Albania, but it’s alive and well inside the National Park Service. Chatterbox has been acquainting himself with the charges against Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers, who is in the process of being fired for admitting under questioning from the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold that the park police are stretched a little thin these days. According to the National Park Service, whatever difficulties the park police may or may not have assuming new responsibilities since 9/11 without a commensurate funding increase are none of the public’s damned business. And if anyone is going to discuss this subject publicly, it sure as hell isn’t going to be the official who presides over park police.

The two principal charges against Chambers, according to the National Park Service’s deputy director, Don Murphy, are that she violated federal rules that prohibit

1) Commenting publicly about ongoing budget discussions;and2) Lobbying.

Chambers’ written reply to the charges reveals that the Park Service has further accused her of

1) Making public remarks about security on federal parkland in and around Washington, D.C.;and2) Various purported minor acts of insubordination too petty to go into here.

Now let’s take a look at what the rules cited by the Park Service actually say.

The supposed prohibition on blabbing about budget discussions, as cited by the Park Service, can be found in its departmental manual and in the White House budget office’s “Circular No. A-11.” The departmental manual citation is Part 112, Chapter 7, which reads:

POB [Office of Budget] has primary staff responsibility for directing and coordinating the development, presentation, execution, and control of the Department’s Budget. This includes formulation within the Department and the Office of Management and Budget and presentation to the Congress, press, interest groups, and the public, and budget execution and control. Among other things, POB is the liaison on all matters dealing with budget formulation and presentation with the Office of Management and Budget, the House and Senate Appropriations Committee, and other Federal agencies.

As Chambers points out in her reply, this passage (which Chatterbox can’t find, incidentally, in the Interior departmental manual posted online, though there is similar language here) merely describes the duties of the Interior Department’s budget office. It says absolutely nothing about whether Interior Department officials outside of Interior’s budget office may discuss budget issues with Congress, the press, interest groups, or the public. If anything, by stipulating that the budget office has “primary responsibility” for budget matters, it invites the affirmative conclusion that other Interior officials exercise secondary and tertiary responsibility.

(Incidentally, the Park Service didn’t attach the blabbing charge exclusively to Chambers’ interview with the Post. It also attached it to an innocuous conversation Chambers had with one Deborah Weatherly, a staff aide to the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, in which Chambers sought clarification on how the subcommittee wanted her to deal with a minor administrative matter.)

The second citation for the she-blabbed-about-the-budget charge is Section 22.1 of the Office of Management and Budget’s “Circular No. A-11,” which states:

The nature and amounts of the President’s decisions and the underlying materials are confidential. Do not release the President’s decisions outside of your agency until the budget is transmitted to Congress. Do not release any materials underlying those decisions, at any time, except in accordance with this section. … Do not release any agency justification provided to [the Office of Management and Budget] and any agency future plans or long-range estimates to anyone outside the executive branch, except in accordance with this section.

The problem with citing “Circular No. A-11” is that it has to do with presidential decisions, formal agency justifications submitted to the White House, and the agency’s long-term plans and projections for the future. Chambers didn’t disclose any of these things, either to the Post or to the Appropriations Subcommittee. More important, this rule gets violated routinely every year as the date for the president’s budget submission approaches. As a reporter, Chatterbox has been party to its violation many, many times.

We move on to the prohibition against lobbying. The text here is the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 43, Volume 1, Section 20.506:

When acting in their official capacity, employees are required to refrain from promoting or opposing legislation relating to programs of the Department without the official sanction of the proper Departmental authority.

The Park Service maintains that Chambers’ answers to the Post’s questions constituted “promoting or opposing legislation.” From the context, it seems pretty clear to Chatterbox that the Code of Federal Regulations is talking about directly promoting or opposing legislation while buttonholing a member of Congress or his staff, or some other government official or his staff. (Isn’t that what lobbying is?) But let’s assume that the broadest possible interpretation pertains; let’s assume that anyone who ever expressed an opinion about some piece of legislation—to anyone—was by definition a lobbyist. Chatterbox is a lobbyist. A cabbie who bends your ear about the Patriot Act is a lobbyist. Your grandmother, who thinks the Medicare prescription drug law should have a quicker phase-in, is a lobbyist.

Even then,Chambers’ comments to the Post couldn’t honestly be called lobbying. She wasn’t opposing or promoting any particular bill; she was merely pointing out that her police force lacked sufficient manpower to do its job properly.

Finally, what about this bizarre prohibition against making public remarks about security on federal parkland in and around Washington, D.C.? Apparently there is no rule against that because none is cited. The implication, of course, is that Chambers is inviting crime by pointing out that the parks aren’t being patrolled as much as they were before. But Chatterbox never observes any hue and cry when members of Congress point out that U.S. nuclear power plants are insufficiently protected or that our borders are too porous. Odds are that if petty criminals are hip to the presence of fewer patrols in Washington-area parks, they learned this by direct observation well before they could read about it in the Washington Post.

Chambers was fired for answering some mildly provocative questions posed by a reporter in a truthful manner. There’s simply no other conclusion Chatterbox can draw. Click here if you don’t want the Park Service to get away with it.