Maryland state park superintendent fired amid turmoil, toxic culture at Gunpowder Falls

Published on: November 18, 2022 2:39 PM EST|Updated on: November 21, 2022 7:58 AM EST

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

Nita Settina, the superintendent of the Maryland Park Service who had failed to act on numerous complaints about a top park official now facing rape charges, was fired Friday morning, park employees said.

Spokesman Gregg Bortz said he could not comment on the terms of Settina’s departure, citing personnel privacy. Bortz also confirmed that Steve McCoy, the regional manager whose area included Gunpowder Falls State Park, is also no longer employed by the agency.

State natural resources secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio emailed employees shortly before 2 p.m. saying, “As of today, November 18, Nita Settina no longer works for the Department of Natural Resources. We will name an acting superintendent soon.”

The shake-up follows the publication of a Baltimore Banner investigation into the handling of complaints about a culture of favoritism, bullying and harassment at Gunpowder, the state’s largest park, where the longtime manager, Michael J. Browning, was indicted by a Baltimore County grand jury last month on charges related to the alleged rapes of two employees.

The Banner spoke with 15 current and former employees and reviewed eight documents sent to state park headquarters — including Settina — in 2015 alleging a series of troubling actions by Browning and his assistant manager, Dean Hughes. Since the publication of the initial investigation, The Banner has spoken with 20 additional current and former park employees about ongoing concerns at Gunpowder and other parks.

One former ranger at Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County told The Banner that after she told Settina she had been groped by a supervisor, Settina told her that unfortunately sexual harassment was a fact of life for women in the workplace.

Settina was a political appointee who was chosen by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, to run the park service in 2008. She remained parks superintendent through both of O’Malley’s terms and was just a couple months shy of remaining in office during both terms of his Republican successor, Gov. Larry Hogan. She helped create the Conservation Jobs Corps, which provides summer park jobs for underprivileged youth, and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In late September, Browning, who had managed Gunpowder since 1991, was arrested by Baltimore County police on charges in connection to the alleged rape of an employee. According to police, Browning had met the woman when she was a teenager taking part in a 4-H program led by his wife. A few years later, he hired her, moved her into a state-owned house in a remote section of the park and began a sexual relationship with her that included more than 10 episodes of violent rape, police said.

Later, a second young woman, also a park employee, stepped forward to say she had been raped by Browning, according to police. A Baltimore County grand jury last month indicted Browning on 27 counts related to the alleged rapes of the two women. He remains in jail pending trial; his attorney said he is not guilty.

The Banner investigation found that Gunpowder employees had followed the proper channels of reporting issues with Browning and Hughes to senior state park officials. One former ranger, Lindley Austin, shared with The Banner a letter detailing harassment by Hughes that she sent to Settina. The superintendent met with the ranger and listened to her story, but took no apparent action, Austin said. Browning remained manager of Gunpowder and Hughes remained his deputy.

State park employees, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to talk with the media, said that both Settina and McCoy were called into meetings at DNR headquarters Friday morning where they were informed that they were terminated. Both were at-will employees.

McCoy had worked for the park service for more than three decades, according to park employees. His region included both Gunpowder and Patapsco, although he did not supervise that region during the period covered by The Banner’s investigation. The regional manager at that time, Peyton Taylor, has since left the park system.

Browning is still employed by the park service, although he is currently suspended without pay. Browning is a law enforcement officer, who had a state-issued badge and gun until his arrest. He is the lone holdover from an era in which all park rangers were also law enforcement officers who are subject to different employment regulations, under the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, park officials say.

Hughes, his former deputy, was fired from the park service last week, according to park employees. As with Settina and McCoy, the agency would only confirm that he no longer worked for the park service.

Bortz, the DNR spokesman, said that issues at Gunpowder — and how the complaints were handled — remain under investigation.

“The department urges anyone with additional information to contact Human Resources,” Bortz said. “The department takes very seriously any such allegations brought to our attention and is taking swift and appropriate action following state law, guidance of the Attorney General’s office, and with deference to ongoing legal proceedings, investigations, and the rights of all involved.”

Former Gunpowder employees said they were heartened that substantial changes are now coming to the park service.

“I’m glad people are finally being held accountable,” said Austin, the former ranger who alleged she had been harassed by Hughes. ”I’m hoping that [the alleged rape victims] will get the justice they deserve. This opens the possibility that Gunpowder can be the park that people deserve and a place where people will actually want to work.”

Former Gunpowder worker Nita Beanland, who said Browning took her away her state-owned vehicle and home in the park after she supported Austin, said she hopes Settina’s firing finally leads to the destruction of a pervasive “old boys club” in the park system.

“This is sadly something that should have happened seven years ago,” said Beanland. “I hope that people feel safe to speak up now if they feel something isn’t right.”

Beanland said she hoped that the park system would continue its reckoning and take further steps to improve workplace culture.

“This didn’t start with us,” she said. “It won’t end with us either.”