Report finds improper use of Park Service lodge in Wyoming

AP News
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Posted: Oct 09, 2015 5:28 PM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A cozy cabin in Grand Teton National Park designated for official government business was rented out by the National Park Service in recent years to some politicians and others as a low-cost family vacation getaway in scenic Jackson Hole, according to an inspector general's report.

The report released this week on the Brinkerhoff Lodge, which is not available for public use, was done after media reports noted some guests, including Vice President Joe Biden, were using the lodge for personal leisure instead of official government business as stated under the lodge's governing policy.

"We're not quite sure when it started becoming this vacation spot," Steve Hardgrove, chief of staff of the U.S. Interior Department's Inspector General's Office, said in a telephone interview Friday. "I would imagine it may not have been an official decision. It probably morphed into that."

The report didn't find anything illegal on the part of the Park Service or the renters, but recommended that the Park Service change its practice of charging guests little or nothing for overnight stays and improve the lodge's management, fire safety and security.

The Park Service has already acted on some recommendations, including clarifying the policy on use of the four-bedroom lodge, which sits on the shores of Jackson Lake with a view of the dominating Teton Range.

"Moving forward, personal use of the lodge will not be permitted and only government employees on official travel with a valid travel authorization will be allowed to stay at the lodge," according to a statement issued by Park Service spokeswoman April Slayton.

A moratorium on overnight stays at the lodge that was imposed during the Inspector General's Office investigation will remain in effect until new procedures are established "to clarify and improve management of the lodge," Slayton, who was out of the office Friday, said.

Built in 1947, the lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places and contains "museum-quality" furnishings, according to the report. The Park Service acquired the lodge in 1955 for use by visiting dignitaries. Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are among its guests.

But in recent years, people other than presidents have used the lodge.

"From 2011 to 2014, over 500 different people have visited the lodge. These visitors include state officials, friends of the prior superintendent, host speakers, foundation officials, and family and friends of official visitors," the report said.

The inspector general's report found that the lodge's intended use for officials on government business is not being enforced and has never been clearly defined. It said the rules governing overnight use of the lodge appeared to gradually change over the years under different Grand Teton superintendents.

"For example, the current superintendent memorandum, issued in April 2012, allows for 'off duty' federal employee and non-federal employee stays so long as they are related to and of benefit to the park," the report said. "Even with the relaxed requirements, the current policy still clearly states that the use of the lodge is for '(NPS) official business only.'"

A log of recent visitors shows some have used it for personal family vacations.

Biden spent four nights at the lodge during a family vacation in August 2014, according to the report.

Other members of President Barack Obama's administration, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, also spent vacation time at the lodge, according to the report.

In addition, the lodging prices charged by the Park Service are well below private lodges in Jackson Hole and not enough to pay for the lodge's operating costs.

Biden, Duncan and Jackson all paid for their stays but were charged much less than if they had stayed at nearby comparable private lodges, which charged rates this past July ranging from $665 to $2,620 a night. The Park Service typically charged guests beyond the first two staying at the lodge $12 a night.

Biden, who is considering a run for president, paid $1,200 for four nights during his stay, which included 12 others.

According to Biden's office, the vice president paid what his office understood to be the Park Service's normal nightly rate at the time and had to ask the Park Service for the bill after the visit because the agency had not issued one.

And from 2011 to 2014, nearly 85 percent of the guests were not billed at all, the report said.

Besides finding fault with how the lodge was used, the report found safety issues, including inadequate security and a "high risk for severe damage" if the lodge caught fire.

"Specifically, we learned that guest safety has not been properly assessed against applicable fire code requirements," it said. "In addition, we found that the park has no asset security and protection plan in place for the lodge."