Two Maryland lawmakers on Wednesday called for an independent review of the state Department of Natural Resources’ handling of repeated complaints of bullying, harassment and intimidation at Gunpowder Falls State Park under longtime manager Michael J. Browning, who now faces rape charges.
The Baltimore Banner on Tuesday published an investigation into Gunpowder, drawing on interviews with 15 current and former employees of the state park system and the DNR police, as well as a review of eight complaints that Gunpowder employees sent to high-ranking state park officials in 2015. They describe a park rife with favoritism and retribution. Browning, 71, was indicted Monday on charges of raping a young woman who worked for him as well as a seasonal employee ― charges that he denies.
“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,” state Sen. Sarah Elfreth and Del. Eric Luedtke wrote in a letter to Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Maryland’s secretary of natural resources.
“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,” the lawmakers wrote, describing the damage that had been inflicted on park employees as “immeasurable.”
The lawmakers wrote that those found to have “actively abetted the abuse described, or who through inaction allowed it to continue, should be immediately terminated.” Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, and Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, have long advocated for the state park system and co-chaired a 2021 commission on state park funding.
Agency spokesman Gregg Bortz told the Banner the letter from the lawmakers will “be thoroughly reviewed, as with any correspondence the department receives from the General Assembly.”
Bortz previously told the Banner that “appropriate administrative actions” had been taken in the wake of Browning’s arrest late 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,” Bortz wrote last week. “The department cannot discuss internal employee matters but assures both staff and the public that serious allegations brought to the department’s attention will be addressed.”
Former Gunpowder employees told The Banner that Browning, a ranger who had a badge and a gun, retaliated against those who challenged his methods by taking away their park housing and state-issued vehicles and assigning them unpleasant and demeaning tasks.
Interviews and documents revealed that Dean Hughes, the assistant park manager, allegedly harassed a fellow employee with whom he had had a romantic relationship. When the woman complained, she, her direct supervisor and her friend all became targets of Browning’s ire, according to interviews and documents. All three women ultimately left the park service.
By Tuesday afternoon, Hughes had been placed on leave “until further notice,” according to an email that park officials sent Gunpowder staff. Ranger Wayne Suydam would serve as acting manager of the park, the email said.
On Monday, a Baltimore County grand jury indicted Browning on 27 counts of rape, sexual assault and assault. The indictment named two victims: the woman referred to in police charging documents filed in September, when Browning was arrested, and a woman who worked as a seasonal employee. The Banner does not identify victims of sexual assault unless they choose to reveal their names.
Gary Bernstein, Browning’s defense attorney, has said that his client is innocent. Bernstein said Tuesday that Browning was “beside himself” to learn that the grand jury had indicted him for raping the second woman. “I thought he was going to stroke out he was so stunned by that allegation,” Bernstein said of Browning, who remains in the Baltimore County jail.
According to police, Browning met the first victim when she was a teen taking part in a 4-H youth program organized by his wife. A few years later, he got her a job at the park and moved her into park housing, according to charging documents. Police said the two had a consensual relationship that was punctuated by violent rape.
Browning had keys to the victim’s home and would show up multiple times a day to have sex with her, including early in the morning before she had awakened, police said. Browning confessed to the rapes in a recorded phone conversation with the victim as investigators secretly listened in, police said.
Bernstein, the defense attorney, said his client vehemently denied the rape allegations and that he and the victim had traveled to Colorado together as recently as early last month.
In their letter to the DNR secretary, Luedtke and Elfreth said that public trust in the parks system had been “profoundly undermined” by both the events at Gunpowder and the fact that Browning and Hughes had remained in positions of power despite myriad complaints from their subordinates.
The legislators outlined additional reforms that they thought should be implemented, including an “independent review of policies, procedures, and training regarding harassment, misconduct, and abuse in the workplace,” a fair process for assigning park housing to employees, and a confidential system for employees to submit evaluations of park managers.
“While these steps must be taken immediately, they do not encompass all that must be done,” they wrote. “It is clear that the Maryland Park Service is in dire need of system-wide reforms to ensure that such predatory behavior is never allowed to occur again, that its own policies pertaining to workplace behavior and wildlife protection are being followed, and that systems are in place to ensure reports of such misconduct will never again be ignored.”