Controversial assistant manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park is ‘no longer employed with DNR’

Published on: November 11, 2022 8:16 PM EST|Updated on: November 14, 2022 7:28 AM EST

Dean Hughes, shown at a 2016 event, began working in the park system in 2009 and became assistant park manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park in 2015. He recently left the agency amid questions about his conduct.

Dean Hughes, the state parks official who was accused of harassing female workers and intimidating staffers during his time as assistant manager at Maryland’s largest state park, is “no longer employed” with the Department of Natural Resources, a spokesman said Friday.

Hughes, who had served as assistant manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park since 2015, was placed on leave last month following the publication of a Baltimore Banner investigation that highlighted a culture of bullying, favoritism and retaliation at the 18,000-acre park in Baltimore and Harford counties.

“Dean Hughes is no longer employed with DNR,” agency spokesman Gregg Bortz wrote in an email Friday.

Bortz declined to comment on the terms of Hughes’ departure, but state park employees who asked not to be identified said that Hughes was terminated Thursday over material found on his state-issued computer. Attempts to reach Hughes on Friday were unsuccessful.

The Banner’s investigation followed the arrest of longtime park manager Michael J. Browning. A Baltimore County grand jury last month indicted Browning on charges that he’d raped and sexually assaulted two women who were park workers at the time. Browning is currently in the Baltimore County Detention Center awaiting trial. He denied the charges through his attorney.

Bortz wrote in an email Friday that Browning was suspended without pay; as the lone holdover from a program in which park rangers were also law enforcement officers, Browning is subject to a different set of personnel regulations under state law.

Hughes, who served as Browning’s second in command, resigned last month as president of the Maryland Rangers Association as the group prepared to hold an emergency vote to remove him from that leadership role. He’d previously announced plans not to seek reelection, citing “challenges that are easily the most significant, complex, and of the highest magnitude of any that I have ever faced in my life.” He went on to say that he needed to “focus my time, attention, heart, and soul on the issues here at home.”

His bio on the association’s website notes that Hughes became a seasonal parks employee “before he was even old enough to get a driver’s license,” then became a permanent worker in 2009 and attended ranger school the following year. He studied criminal justice and holds a bachelor’s degree from Towson University.

Michael Browning served as park manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park.

The Banner spoke with 15 current and former employees of the state park system and the DNR police, including a dozen former Gunpowder workers. The interviews, as well as a review of eight documents submitted by workers to state parks headquarters in 2015, depicted a toxic culture within the park.

Former employees said that Hughes harassed a female worker with whom he had had a relationship, repeatedly asking her to take him back, cornering her in her truck behind a park garage and then storming into her house on park property. He and Browning retaliated against the worker as well as managers who stood up for her, the former workers alleged.

Former Gunpowder workers also said that numerous employees had complained about Hughes romantically pursuing young female seasonal workers, a potential violation of state policy. One woman wrote in an email to state park leaders that Browning had told her that as soon as he learned about Hughes having a romantic liaison, “he’s moved onto the next one.”

Employees who raised concerns about Browning and Hughes said they found themselves assigned to unsavory duties, challenging shift times, and, in some cases, lost their state-issued vehicles and housing.

After a slew of workers contacted state park leaders about issues at Gunpowder in 2015, they saw no apparent action taken. Browning remained park manager and Hughes his assistant.

The following year, according to Baltimore County police, Browning hired a young woman to work at Gunpowder whom he had met a few years prior, when she took part in a 4-H program led by his wife. He moved the woman into a state-owned house in a remote section of the park and began a consensual relationship with her, police said in charging documents. The woman went to police in September and said that Browning had periodically forcibly raped her, the documents allege. Authorities said Browning confessed to the rape in a taped phone call as police investigators listened in. Browning, 71, was arrested the next day.

The Baltimore Banner does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault unless they choose to reveal their names.

A sign at the entrance of Gunpowder Falls State Park Sweet Air Area.

DNR officials have said little about the case against Browning, who worked for the park service for 45 years and surrendered his gun after he was arrested.

As for the complaints about workplace misconduct, Bortz wrote last month, “DNR Human Resource Services continues to investigate issues that have been raised and encourages any employee or other individuals to come forward with additional information.”

Two Maryland lawmakers have called for an independent review into both the events at Gunpowder and the apparent lack of response by high-ranking state park officials to years of complaints. They cited their “horror” at what they called the “systemic abuse of employees that has been allowed to take place, unchecked.”

Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Maryland’s secretary of natural resources, responded that she had taken “appropriate actions to address the situation.” She did not endorse the call for an independent investigation, but said DNR was conducting an internal review “in consultation with the Maryland Department of Budget and Management and the Office of the Attorney General.”