National Park Official Violated Criminal Law With Sweetheart Nonprofit Deal


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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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A former National Park Service official and Trump administration critic accepted illegal gifts totaling over $14,000 from a nonprofit organization shortly before and after his retirement.

An investigation of the National Park Service by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General has determined that Sheridan Steele, a former senior NPS official, illegally accepted gifts from the Schoodic Institute and its board members. The IG report, released on June 21, found that Steele violated criminal law when he accepted a series of gifts from the Schoodic Institute. Gifts from the Institute included: free attendance for Steele and his family at a fundraiser, airfare to the U.S. Virgin Islands and a Caribbean yacht outing.

Steele worked at the National Park Service for nearly 40 years before retiring in October 2015. During his long tenure, he worked at six different parks. His last twelve years were spent at Acadia National Park in Maine, the oldest U.S. national park east of Mississippi River. It was during his time at Arcadia when the Schoodic Institute, a nonprofit that supports science and educational initiatives, was formed inside the park’s borders.

The Schoodic Institute was apparently a big fan of Steele’s work at NPS. A month before his retirement, the nonprofit hosted a fundraising dinner in his honor, which ran for $125 a plate. Steele and his family attended for free, which constituted a gift of $625. Alan Goldstein, chairman of the Schoodic board, provided Steele with $4,890 in airfare compensation to fly to the U.S. Virgin Islands. From there, he took a free trip on Goldtein’s yacht, the outing valued at $9,256.

Steele claims he had no idea what he did was illegal.

“Had I any inkling that this retirement gift was inappropriate, I obviously would have declined,” Steele said in a statement to the Mount Desert Islander. “But these two [Schoodic Institute] donors have been extremely generous to Acadia, and I saw this as just one more gesture of support for what we do together and, since (the vacation) was post retirement, not a problem.” (RELATED: Utility That Tried To Blame California Fires On Climate Change Could Face Bankruptcy)

The Schoodic Institute board also appears to have been in the dark about the legalities of its actions.

“Clearly we need to do a little more education. This is an opportunity for us to educate our staff and board about the intricacies of federal policy,” said Don Kent, president and CEO of the institute.

The inspector general of the U.S. Department of the Interior initiated their investigation in August 2016 after receiving allegation of improper conduct. The Department of Justice declined to prosecute, but has provided the report to the National Park Service deputy director “for any action deemed appropriate.”

Steele did not appear to be politically active during his time at the National Park Service. However, the now-retired NPS employee published an op-ed for a local Maine news outlet in February that decried the Trump administration’s budget cuts to national parks, claiming the cuts would make Arcadia fall into “disrepair.”

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