WASHINTON - April 30 - Bureaucratic indifference and official callousness contributed to a suicide by a Bureau of Land Management national monument manager, according to an internal investigation report released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At the same time, workplace surveys show deepening distrust and plummeting morale within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other agencies within the Interior Department.
On May 2, 2005, Marlene Braun, the manager of the Carrizo Plains National Monument in California killed herself, leaving a suicide note citing abuse, humiliation and unprofessional conduct by her chain-of-command. The Inspector General “Report of Investigation”, dated April 19, 2006, found that “BLM did not take action to resolve longstanding differences…or to diffuse inter-office conflict, despite the availability of alternative dispute resolution methods.” As a result, the report concludes “a breakdown in trust, communication and cooperation…adversely affected management of the Carrizo Plains…”
The report, extracted by PEER nine months after its first Freedom of Information Act request to the Inspector General’s office, leaves lingering questions:
- Why did the Bakersfield Field Office manager not make a 911 call when he was unable to contact Braun after receiving her email?
- Who delayed “emergency medical personnel” from immediately responding to Braun’s house, requesting that they await “the arrival of law enforcement” because “Braun was known to possess firearms”? Braun was alive as emergency responders arrived but died an hour later;
- Why did the BLM officials first dispatched to check on Braun seize her computer and other materials from Braun’s house and then “failed to properly inventory the removed property or document their actions as required by BLM policy”?; and
- What, if any, changes will Interior consider adopting to prevent future such tragedies?
“Interior’s leadership should extract and share the lessons learned from Marlene Braun’s life and death, instead of treating it like a skeleton they want to keep hidden in the closet,” stated California PEER Director Karen Schambach, who had worked with Braun in the months before her death to resolve the personnel and resource conflicts on Carrizo Plains. “Unfortunately, without a change in cultural climate at Interior to one which stresses more kindness and less authoritarianism, this type of tragedy will recur.”
The 2007 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey, which measures “employee satisfaction and engagement,” shows low and declining morale scores for Interior agencies, which overall ranked in the bottom third of all agencies. In a ranking of 222 federal agencies, BLM ranked 157th, the National Park Service ranked 160th and the Interior Solicitor’s Office ranked 218th. All but two of the Interior agencies registered lower morale scores than in the 2005 survey.
“Places like BLM and the Park Service where people work outdoors in some of the most spectacular settings on the planet should be among the best places to work but, due to vicious politics and ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ management, are among the most depressing,” Schambach added, pointing to PEER’s plea to then-Secretary Gale Norton to address the human conflicts within her agency in a non-hierarchical fashion. “The term ‘human capital’ is the latest jargon used at Interior to describe workers but the reality is more like ‘human chattel’ where the knowledge and perceptions of agency specialists count for little in agency decision-making.”
Since Marlene’s death, PEER has heard from a number of other women within BLM who have shared similar stories of abuse by their male superiors.
See the Inspector General Report of Investigation
Read the futile plea from PEER for a new approach to then-Secretary Norton
Look at the 2007 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey
Examine the “culture of fear” at Interior identified in 2004 report by the Inspector General