Maryland state park employees complained for years about a toxic culture. They say little changed.

Published on: November 17, 2022 7:36 PM EST|Updated on: November 17, 2022 8:00 PM EST

Nita Settina, Maryland Park Service Superintendent, speaks at an 2017 event in Dorchester County.

Park ranger Sarah McCarthy approached Maryland Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina on a day in late spring 2016. “Please,” she recalled asking the state park system’s highest ranking employee. “Why can’t I get any answers?”

About two months earlier, she had filed a complaint that a supervisor had groped her in his office at Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County, she said. The supervisor asked McCarthy to close his office door, handed her a uniform vest to put on, then fondled her breasts while saying he needed to check the pockets for money, McCarthy said.

The Patapsco park manager told her he would investigate, but she was never interviewed and park officials declined to disclose the outcome. They told her that the supervisor would continue in his current role and she would move from fieldwork to office work — a devastating blow because she loved the outdoors, she said.

McCarthy wanted answers from Settina, who has led the state park service since 2008. But the encounter angered her even more: McCarthy said Settina told her that unfortunately harassment happens to women in the workplace, including the park service. The Banner corroborated the conversation with three other people, including one park employee (now her husband) who was present.

Questions about Settina’s leadership have come to the forefront since Michael J. Browning, the manager of Gunpowder Falls, the state’s largest park, was indicted last month on charges that he repeatedly raped two employees.

A Baltimore Banner investigation revealed that numerous Gunpowder employees in 2015 sent detailed complaints to state park headquarters — including to Settina — alleging bullying and harassment by Browning and his assistant manager, Dean Hughes.

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

After the report, two state lawmakers called for an independent investigation into the handling of issues at Gunpowder. Hughes is no longer employed by the park service and Browning is on unpaid leave awaiting trial.

“These people have been getting away with this for too long,” said McCarthy, describing her frustration at the apparent lack of action from Settina and other high-ranking park officials.

Through a spokesman, Settina declined to be interviewed, citing personnel matters.

“DNR Human Resources Services continues to investigate serious and disturbing allegations that have been brought to light,” DNR spokesperson Gregg Bortz wrote. “The department takes very seriously any such allegations that are brought to our attention and will act accordingly following state law, guidance of the Attorney General’s office, and with deference to ongoing legal proceedings, investigations, and the rights of all involved.”

State park employees, who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak with the media, said Settina has not issued any department-wide communications about the arrest of Browning, who had managed Gunpowder since 1991. State park leaders also abruptly canceled a major annual meeting of park managers, as well as regional park manager meetings and senior staff meetings.

Also this week, Sarah Milbourne, the manager of Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland, was named acting manager of Gunpowder, Bortz said. Milbourne is the second person to be named acting manager at Gunpowder in the past month.

Settina was appointed to her role by then Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat. She stayed on through both of O’Malley’s terms as well as those of his Republican successor, Gov. Larry Hogan, a rare feat for a political appointee. As superintendent, she reports to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary, Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, who was appointed by Hogan in 2019. Both Haddaway-Riccio and Settina could be replaced by incoming governor Wes Moore after he takes office in January.

Settina’s LinkedIn page touts that she oversees 76 state parks with a total operating budget of $45 million, 261 full-time employees and 700 seasonal workers. It also states that she created the Conservation Jobs Corps, which provides summer jobs to youth from underserved communities, led the creation of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, and launched efforts to open four other state parks. Settina’s salary is $134,350, Bortz said.

Prior to assuming the top post, Settina coordinated a nature tourism program for the state park system, encouraging visitors to kayak and hike backcountry trails, said Rick Barton, who served as Maryland park superintendent from 1990 to 2007.

Barton likened the job to “managing a big party every day.”

“There are a lot of guests and a lot of infrastructure,” he said. The state park superintendent must balance a complicated series of priorities, managing sensitive environmental areas, following preservation guidelines around historic sites, and adhering to procurement guidelines, he said.

The superintendent has final say in personnel decisions, Barton said. “You have a lot of authority and discretion as to how you manage people,” he said. “They definitely have the responsibility for the behavior of their staff from top to bottom.”

As part of an investigation into the toxic environment at Gunpowder Falls State Park, The Banner interviewed 15 current and former park employees. Some said they were dismayed by Settina’s apparent failure to address complaints about the actions of Browning and Hughes.

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

They described a culture of intimidation, favoritism and an “old boys club,” at the park. “It was a really great place to work until it wasn’t, and then it was horrible. It was the hunter and the hunted,” said a former ranger Lindley Austin. “You were in or you were out. If you challenged them, they would make your life miserable.”

Browning and Hughes rewarded members of the in-group with plum assignments, state vehicles and park housing, the workers said. Those who challenged their leadership or complained about them to more senior park officials found themselves being assigned unpleasant tasks, working irregular days and hours and, in some cases, losing their state vehicles and housing, they said.

The Banner reviewed complaints sent to state park headquarters in 2015 by eight people working at Gunpowder at the time. Many of the documents were sent to Gary Burnett, then the director of support services for the parks, who was assigned to investigate complaints about Gunpowder. Burnett currently works for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which manages parks in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Five of the eight were part of the Maryland Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps program. They emailed their statements to Tina Stevens, the park service employee who supervised that program, describing a hostile work environment.

In response, Stevens told one conservation corps member in an email that she had discussed the situation with Settina and Burnett. “I told Nita Settina about this issue Friday morning,” she wrote in an email reviewed by The Banner. “Nita, Gary and I are all working on this and Nita expressed that this a priority and we will not tolerate anything but a supportive work environment without retaliation.”

Yet conservation corps members said they did not see any improvements. In fact, crew chief Nicholas Behe found that his contract was terminated early. A member of the following year’s conservation corps class told The Banner his group also encountered a similarly hostile work environment.

Austin, then a Gunpowder ranger, emailed Settina directly in 2016, detailing how Hughes, who she had previously dated, had harassed her over a period of months in an attempt to win her back. In the email, Austin described how Hughes cornered her in her truck, screamed profanities at her, and then followed her to her home at the park and stormed inside. She wrote to Settina that Browning apparently did nothing to reprimand Hughes after she reported the incidents. “He experienced no negative consequences, while I was left to prove my worth as a person and employee,” Austin wrote.

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.

After Austin sent the email, Settina arranged to meet with her at the Harford County state park where Austin had been transferred. Austin said she spoke candidly to Settina about her experiences with Hughes and Browning but saw no apparent action taken. Browning remained the park manager; Hughes remained his deputy.

It was that year, according to Baltimore County Police, that Browning hired the first woman to accuse him of rape as a seasonal employee and moved her into a house in a remote section of the park. He began a consensual relationship with the woman, who is about four decades younger than him, but the relationship was punctuated by episodes of violent rape, according to police charging documents. A Baltimore County grand jury indicted Browning on 27 counts related to the rape of that woman, as well as a second woman who worked at the park. Browning’s attorney has said he is innocent; a trial is set for March.

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, and Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, have demanded an “independent review” of the handling of complaints at Gunpowder for “reports of abuse up the chain of command being ignored for years, if not decades.”

Haddaway-Riccio, the agency secretary, told the lawmakers the department had taken “appropriate actions.”

But Elfreth said this week that greater scrutiny is needed. “Organizations that have this sort of systemic problem should not be investigating themselves,” she said. “It’s 2022. This is not something that should be glossed over any more.”

Since the investigation was published, The Banner has spoken with 20 additional current and former employees of the park service and the state Natural Resources Police. Many said they believed there were pervasive problems within the park service. They wondered how many good workers had quit park jobs after dealing with the managers at Gunpowder or other problematic employees.

“What upsets me the most is that they ruined a lot of careers,” said Jane Queen, who worked at Gunpowder during the summer from 2006 to 2013. “There were a lot of good young park rangers that wanted to spend their lives at the park. But because they pissed [Browning] off, they had their careers ruined.”

McCarthy, who shared notes and documents corroborating her description of her experiences at Patapsco, is among those who left the park service.

“I had been so happy in this job,” she said. “I wanted to drive a tractor, cut a tree down, administer first aid and help people understand how the natural world works. But no one should have to deal with this nonsense. Ultimately, the reason I kept fighting it is that no one should have to deal with sexual harassment and retaliation from reporting it in any workplace.”