Family Lawyer Says Lousy Fed Probe Of 9-Year-Old’s Death Was ‘Nonsense’

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After the July 2009 death of a 9-year-old boy, federal investigators left serious questions unanswered in a new Department of Interior Office of Inspector General report on possible destruction of evidence, according to the family’s lawyer.

Tommy Botell was hiking the National Park Service-run trail at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California with his family when a retaining wall collapsed on him and his 13-year-old sister. The collapse killed him and seriously injured her.

Court testimony revealed NPS officials raised concerns about the park’s safety and suggested closing it long before the boy’s death, but Lassen Superintendent Darlene Koontz didn’t address those concerns.

Koontz’s Lassen park rangers investigated the incident for three weeks and removed the rest of the retaining wall that killed Botell before handing the investigation over to official NPS special investigators.

Koontz eliminated parts of an unrelated report that cited the trail’s safety hazards, according to an inspector general report. And forensic analysts found no emails about the incident due to Lassen staff members’ emails deleting automatically after 30 days, according to court documents and the IG. NPS policy also required an NPS board inquiry, which never happened, according to court testimony.

Department of Interior Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall launched an investigation into the NPS’s investigation last year, at the request of Democratic California Rep. Jackie Speier.

Stephen Campora, the Botell family’s lawyer, said Kendall dances around the more serious questions — namely, whether Koontz perjured herself by offering seemingly contradictory testimony to the court, or whether she intentionally sanitized the report from a historical landscape architect who said the park’s structure was “quite the worst trail I’d ever seen in terms of poor condition and safety hazards.”

Koontz at one point during court proceedings handed over NPS policies on maintaining the retaining walls, but at another point, tried to get the case dismissed by claiming she was unaware of any policies dealing with retaining wall maintenance, Campora said. Campora also claimed Koontz lied about deliberately stalling an investigation into the incident.

“They don’t address whether Darlene Koontz committed perjury, they don’t address the destruction of that report,” Campora told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“This report is done by the Department of Interior of the National Park Service, and investigating themselves is always a bad idea,” Campora told TheDCNF. “The conclusions are very bad for them.”

The family settled with NPS for $3.5 million in 2013.

Speier still wasn’t satisfied with the Interior’s investigations, either.

“While I appreciate that the Department of the Interior Inspector General re-opened the investigation and interviewed former Superintendent Koontz, I continue to be appalled by the lack of transparency,” Speier told TheDCNF, referring to the NPS and the IG.

“It’s hard to trust an investigation that is marred by shredded documents and relied on an interview with park personnel five years after the tragic and seemingly preventable death of Tommy Botell,” Speier said.

The report ends abruptly without reaching any conclusions. The IG investigation revealed NPS’s initial investigation wasn’t perfect, but found nothing seriously awry, said IG spokesman Stephen Hardgrove.

“It was certainly an unfortunately incident that led to the death but the actual follow-up investigation, although it wasn’t perfect there certainly was no intent to hide, destruct evidence,” Hardgrove told TheDCNF.

“We looked at all the transcripts,” Hardgrove added. “We looked at just about everything. We did not see anything that would prompt us to believe that she perjured herself. We did not see any evidence of that.”

Campora told TheDCNF that it’s “complete nonsense” that no evidence of contradicting claims exists.

“She signed a declaration saying she knew of no policies,” Campora said. “She then testified in her deposition to a multitude of policies. She had signed the policies. The court said both cannot be true and said an evidentiary hearing on perjury should be held.”

NPS didn’t address the report’s content.

“The National Park Service thanks the Office of the Inspector General for their investigation, and we accept the findings of their report,” NPS spokesman Craig Dalby told the DCNF. “Again, we offer our heartfelt condolences to the Botell family for the loss of their son during this tragic accident.”

This isn’t the first time Kendall’s office has been criticized for poor work.

The environmental nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said Kendall has “politicized” investigations, “focused on trivial matters,” “kept IG operations secret” and shouldn’t become a permanent IG.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said she felt torn between leaving the department IG post vacant, and confirming Kendall, who is a presidential nominee crippled by multiple allegations of “playing games with Congress.”

Hardgrove said NPS has addressed some of the problems with the initial investigation, but couldn’t offer specifics. Here are the NPS policy gaps the IG report mentioned, although doesn’t categorize them as flaws:

  • There is no uniform policy for park rangers to investigate incidents.
  • Park rangers weren’t required to preserve documents related to investigations
  • NPS didn’t impose any uniform policy for email preservation.

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