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Grand Canyon Superintendent Faced Serious Ethics Questions

Grand Canyon panorama 2010
Grand Canyon panorama 2010

The Grand Canyon National Park is renegotiating the terms of its contract with the current concessionaire, Xanterra.

Helping to shape that new contract will be the new Park Superintendent, David Uberuaga.

He was involved in writing contract regulations several years ago when he was Superintendent at Mt Rainier National Park in Washington.

And a recentinvestigative series by Seattle Times'investigative journalist and columnist Ron Judd has raised serious questions about some of Uberuaga's decisions.

Judd has worked at the Seattle Times for nearly 25 years, and he’s written a lot about Washington’s National Parks.

A notice on an internet site where skiers and climbers hang out piqued his interest a couple of years ago.  He said, “Someone had posted a thing from the Congressional Record about an investigation done in an unnamed national park of an unnamed superintendent.”

It was from an annual statement to Congress from the Office of the Inspector General about all the work the office had done over the previous year.

“A couple of months later," said Judd, "I got a tip from a source who said, did you see this in the Congressional Record, and I said yes, and the person said that was Mt Rainier National Park and the person in question is Dave Uberuaga.”

Dave Uberuaga worked at Mt Rainier for decades before he became Superintendent in 2002.

And except for a short stint at Yosemite, he was at Mt Rainier until he moved to the Grand Canyon last July.

A complaint to federal officials about a simple house sale sparked the investigation.

Back in 2002, Uberuaga sold his 3 bedroom home on 2 acres in Ashford, Washington.

He said he’d been approached by at least 2 people interested in buying the place.

“So," said Uberuaga, "that’s why I went to the listing agent and said let’s put this out and see who it attracts."

It attracted a buyer who was willing to pay 425 thousand dollars, more than three times its assessed value at the time.

While that was in the heady days of the real estate boom, 3 times assessed value was a pretty good deal.

But, here’s where it starts to get messy.

Uberuaga signed that contract with Peter Whittaker the owner of Rainer Mountaineering,

That company that did millions of dollars’ worth of business with the Park as a climbing guide service.

Uberuaga insists the sale was all above board.

"The transaction," he said, "occurred with the approval of those involved above me, the ethics officer, the solicit0r, so I felt very good about it."

But this wasn’t one of those very clean, walk-away-with-a-check type property sales.

Uberuaga financed the deal himself, with Whittaker agreeing to pay off the debt over the next five years.

During those 5 years, Uberuaga, with others in the Park Service, were re-writing the rules that would affect concessions contracts at Rainier for many years to come.

And he never mentioned he had a business relationship with the owner of a company the new rules would regulate.

Seattle Times reporter Ron Judd said, "Uberuaga even signed a paper, a one sheet piece of paper that specifically in incredible detail spells out I attest I have no financial dealings with these people that could possibly cause a conflict of interest or appearance of conflict of interest, on and on it specified all different sorts of business arrangements. He signed it. It became part of the record."

Ashford’s a small community and rumors started to fly that Uberuaga and Whittaker were buying up property.

Someone complained to federal officials. They investigated and referred the case to US attorneys in Seattle.

The rumors were found to be groundless and Uberuaga passed a lie detector test that he never meant to deceive anyone. Federal attorney’s never pressed charges.

In 2008, Uberuaga received a formal reprimand which, as is policy, stayed in his personnel file for one year. The man who signed that reprimand, Jonathan  Jarvis, had been Uberuaga’s supervisor at Rainier. 3 years later, as the head of the National Park Service, Jarvis was also the man who approved Uberuaga’s promotion to the Grand Canyon.

The move stunned Seattle Times reporter Ron Judd.

“I’m just sort of amazed," he said, "that you could make a blunder of this magnitude which in most real world situations in a key job like this, where you have strict ethic rules about this kind of stuff, would have been a career ending mistake and instead, he’s been promoted."

Uberuaga says he’s a man of integrity and that people who know him and his 27 year career will nod their heads in agreement.  Judd’s articles, however, have made the Superintendent wonder what he could have done differently 10 years ago.

"Was there something there that I was being blinded by?" he asked. "I didn’t think so.  I felt really good about what I decided, but looking back at it, and trying to connect some of the other dots that are innuendo and make it look worse than it is, I wish no one had to deal with it."

Sometimes the appearance of a conflict can be just as embarrassing as the real thing.

In the end, there doesn’t appear to have been any quid pro quo. Peter Whittaker’s mountain climbing company lost about a third of its revenue after the contract revisions that Uberuaga helped write. And the company’s franchise fees to the park more than doubled to about 15%.