The top official at the National Park Service admitted to investigators that he acted in a way “not appropriate for work” in the hallways of the Interior Department while telling a story about urination.
But P. Daniel Smith denied that he “touched himself obscenely” as suggested by an anonymous letter forwarded to the department’s inspector general in March, according to a summary of that investigation released Thursday by the watchdog office.
As a result, investigators could not determine whether the incident constituted sexual harassment — and Smith’s job appears to be safe.
The Interior Department, which includes the Park Service, stressed that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke “has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and holds wrongdoers accountable for their actions,” according to a statement Zinke’s office sent to The Washington Post.
The statement added, “Neither the witnesses in the report, nor the IG, found this to be a case of sexual harassment.”
In the letter that started the probe, an anonymous Park Service employee wrote to Zinke about how Smith “grabbed his crotch and his penis and acted out as though he was urinating on the wall” while relaying a story in January to another employee in the department’s Washington headquarters.
Smith told the watchdog office that he did gesture “with his hands to simulate urinating,” an action he said he regretted in hindsight.
But he and the employee to whom he was telling the story — Bert Frost, the Park Service’s top executive in Alaska — denied to investigators “that Smith touched himself obscenely or used any vulgar language,” according to the inspector general’s office.
Frost also “said he was not offended by the story or the gesture” but acknowledged that “they were inappropriate for the workplace.”
The letter-writer wrote that the gesture “could have been a sexual act” but was not sure. She added that “regardless, he grabbed his crotch and penis in a public place.”
The letter-writer described feeling uncomfortable. “I really could not believe what I was seeing or hearing just outside of my office,” she wrote. “I found it so vile and disgusting.”
Shortly after the investigation wrapped up about a month ago, Smith apologized to Park Service employees for behaving “in an inappropriate manner.”
“As a leader, I must hold myself to the highest standard of behavior in the workplace,” Smith wrote in a staffwide email. “I take my responsibility to create and maintain a respectful, collegial work environment very seriously.”
But in that email, he added that his behavior “does not rise to the level of harassment,” Smith wrote. “I am very sorry for my mistake in telling this story and any discomfort it clearly caused.”
The distinction is important because Zinke has repeatedly promised to crack down on harassment across the Interior Department. An internal Park Service survey identified sexual harassment as a long-standing and widespread problem among park rangers.
Zinke said last year he fired four “senior leaders” for harassment and encouraged more witnesses to come forward. ” ‘When you see something, say something’ is the policy in the Department of the Interior,” Zinke told lawmakers this year.
Investigators did not interview the Park Service employee who said she witnessed the conversation and wrote the letter, making it difficult for the inspector general’s office to get all sides of the story.
She “was unknown and couldn’t be interviewed,” said Nancy DiPaolo, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office.
The letter-writer had explained why she wanted to remain anonymous. “I wish I could come forward,” the worker wrote, “but retaliation is real.”