The Maryland natural resources secretary on Wednesday responded to calls for an independent investigation into Gunpowder Falls State Park — where the longtime park manager was recently indicted on charges of raping two employees following years of complaints about a toxic work environment — by stating that she had taken “appropriate actions to address the situation.”

“I am prohibited by law from discussing allegations and any other investigations that may be ongoing related to confidential personnel matters,” Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio wrote in a letter to state Sen. Sarah Elfreth and Del. Eric Luedtke. The Democratic lawmakers requested the independent investigation after The Baltimore Banner last week published an investigation revealing years of complaints about misconduct, favoritism and retaliation by leaders at the state’s largest park.

“I cannot speak to how things have been handled in the past, however, I want to make it abundantly clear that any form of bullying, harassment, or abuse of power of any kind cannot and will not be tolerated at our department or our parks,” wrote Haddaway-Riccio, a political appointee whose agency oversees the state park system as well as fishing, hunting, wildlife, forests and the Chesapeake Bay. “I will exercise every option available to me as secretary to ensure proper recourse to protect our employees and patrons.”

Elfreth, of Anne Arundel County, and Luedtke, of Montgomery County, wrote to Haddaway-Riccio last week calling for an independent investigation into both the events at Gunpowder and the apparent lack of response to years of complaints by high-ranking state park officials.

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“It is difficult to adequately convey in words our horror upon reading the recent exposé by the Baltimore Banner pertaining to the systemic abuse of employees that has been allowed to take place, unchecked, at Gunpowder Falls State Park,” they wrote. “The behavior and lack of accountability described is inexcusable and requires prompt action by the Department to address the issues raised and ensure that a similar situation never happens again.”

Luedtke said Wednesday that he was “very disappointed,” by Haddaway-Riccio’s letter.

“It’s a non-response,” he said. “It seems like the department is not going to take aggressive action to address these issues of workplace culture. We didn’t ask them to reveal anything related to the criminal investigation. We’re asking them to look into their policies and modify their policies.”

DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (State of Maryland)

The controversy comes as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, enters his final months in office amid speculation that he may run for president. Hogan’s office has referred questions about Gunpowder to DNR officials. Haddaway-Riccio, a Republican who has led the agency since early 2019, represented Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the state House of Delegates from 2003 to 2015 before joining the Hogan administration. She served as deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office from 2016 to 2019.

Both Elfreth and Luedtke said they hoped that the next governor, who will be chosen by voters next week, would demand significant changes at the Maryland Park Service.

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“It’s a systemic issue that needs to be addressed head on,” said Elfreth. “It goes beyond any one secretary or any one administration.”

The secretary’s letter did not directly address the legislators’ call for an outside investigation, and agency spokesman Gregg Bortz denied that she had rejected the request. He said the department’s human resources division was investigating the allegations of misconduct “in consultation with the Maryland Department of Budget and Management and the Office of the Attorney General.”

The AG’s office said it does not confirm or deny investigations.

Bortz wrote in an email last month that “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.”

The Banner’s investigation into Gunpowder was followed the late-September arrest of Michael J. Browning, who had managed the park since 1991. Browning was indicted by a Baltimore County grand jury last week on 27 counts of rape, sexual assault and assault stemming from alleged attacks on two women, both of whom had worked at Gunpowder. Browning is the lone holdover from a time in which all park rangers were law enforcement officers and carried a state-issued badge and gun.

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Browning’s attorney has denied the accusations. The attorney said his client maintains he had a consensual relationship with one of the accusers and did not rape either woman. Browning is awaiting trial in the Baltimore County jail.

According to Baltimore County police, Browning met one of the victims when she was a teen taking part in a 4-H program run by his wife, hired the young woman as a seasonal employee in 2016, moved her into a state-owned house in the Days Cove area of the park, and began a six-year relationship with her that was punctuated by alleged incidents of violent rape.

The Banner spoke with 15 current and former employees of the park service and the Department of Natural Resources Police, most of whom had worked at Gunpowder, and reviewed eight complaints that Gunpowder employees had sent to high-ranking state park officials in 2015.

The interviews and documents paint a picture of a park rife with bullying, intimidation and harassment, both by Browning and his assistant manager, Dean Hughes. Gunpowder workers who brought their concerns to officials in state park headquarters said that not only did Browning and Hughes not seem to face consequences for their actions, but managers appeared to retaliate against them for complaining.

Hughes was placed on leave last week; he has referred questions to DNR. He resigned last week as the head of the Maryland Rangers Association, a professional organization for park employees.

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Since the publication of the original investigation, more than a dozen additional current and former employees of the state park service have contacted The Banner to share their own experiences with bullying, intimidation and harassment in the workplace.

julie.scharper@thebaltimorebanner.com

Julie Scharper is a news enterprise reporter who writes about interesting people, places, trends and traditions in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. She seeks to answer the question: What does it mean to be alive in this time and place? 

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