IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Watchdogs said Monday that they're outraged prosecutors filed no charges against National Park Service officials responsible for $3 million in illegal projects that damaged a sacred American Indian burial ground.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Cedar Rapids declined in 2012 to file civil or criminal charges against employees responsible for a decade of illegal construction at the Effigy Mounds National Monument on the Mississippi River near McGregor, Iowa. The decision became public last week, when the Park Service released its 700-page report on a criminal investigation of the monument's former superintendent Phyllis Ewing and maintenance director Tom Sinclair.
"We gave it careful consideration ... and determined that charges were not warranted," assistant U.S. attorney Pete Deegan said Monday, declining to elaborate.
Tim Mason, a former park ranger whose complaint sparked the investigation, said prosecutors didn't want to "prosecute one of their own, another federal employee."
"If I went up to Effigy Mounds with a shovel and walked across the boardwalk and started digging holes into mounds, I would be tackled, handcuffed, passed over to U.S. marshals and put in a federal holding cell," Mason said. By contrast, he said, monument officials "were rewarded handsomely for doing criminal acts against a sacred site."
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said prosecutors should provide more of an explanation because their inaction "may have had the effect of condoning and perpetuating these flagrant cultural resource offenses."
During Ewing's tenure as superintendent from 1999 to 2010, she and subordinates built boardwalks, trails and a maintenance shed without following federal laws that required consultation with 12 tribes and reviews by state archaeologists before approval, investigation documents show.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said that he was disturbed the projects "ran roughshod over procedures put in place to protect the resource."
But Ewing's lawyer, Michael Carroll, said Monday that it was "ridiculous" that criminal charges were even considered against Ewing, saying the issues were part of a "systemic problem."
Ewing has said she was trying to make the monument more accessible to those with disabilities and didn't knowingly violate laws. But documents show she required a railroad company to pay a $20,000 fine for dumping debris on the site in 2007 in violation of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act.
A 2012 damage assessment conducted under that law found construction of the shed and one boardwalk caused up to $188,000 in damage and restoration costs. No penalties were assessed.
Some Park Service employees told investigator David Barland-Liles that Ewing's actions were done intentionally to circumvent laws that protect historic sites. Carroll said those employees were trying to protect themselves.
Park ranger Bob Palmer warned Ewing about major compliance problems in a 2003 memo. But Ewing told Barland-Liles in 2012 that she was unaware of problems until a 2009 audit.
The Park Service kept Ewing as superintendent after the audit and allowed her to transfer to a curator job with the regional office in Omaha a year later. She was fired Feb. 28 — nearly five years after the audit — in a move Carroll called puzzling. Sinclair left the agency earlier this year.