ACADIA NAT’L PARK — Sheridan Steele, former superintendent of Acadia, has described as “total bunk” allegations by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of the Interior that he violated federal law in his relationship with the Schoodic Institute prior to retiring as superintendent in 2015.
The OIG last Thursday released a report on the findings of an investigation that began in August 2016.
Steele was accused of having “negotiated for employment and had an arrangement for employment” with the Schoodic Institute prior to retiring as park superintendent and that he was “participating in matters affecting his own financial interests and the financial interests of the organization.”
Steele responded to those charges in an email to the Islander last Thursday. “I never sought or talked about employment after retirement with anyone,” he said.
The OIG said it began its investigation after receiving allegations that Steele had violated federal laws both before he retired and “through his post-employment work with a non-profit organization…[that] receives federal funds through a cooperative agreement with the park.”
Schoodic Institute supports science and education initiatives in Acadia and the surrounding region and partners with the National Park Service (NPS) to manage the Schoodic Education and Research Center campus.
Steele said he volunteered to be the “project manager or CEO” of a new Schoodic Institute project called the Schoodic Marine Center, which was created “to advance marine science and education and to improve transportation between the Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor parts of Acadia,” according to the Schoodic Institute website.
“I never intended to obtain post retirement employment of any kind, but I did want to contribute to the success of Schoodic Institute and its projects,” Steele said. “I had no interest in working even part time other than as a volunteer. So, the negotiation-for-employment piece [of the OIG’s report] is total bunk.
“I can assure you that there has been no personal financial gain of any kind since retirement,” he continued, “only a desire to make things better for Acadia and its many visitors and supporters. My mission was the NPS mission: preserve, protect and provide for the enjoyment of the many people coming to Acadia. To say otherwise is just plain wrong.”
The OIG said that both the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maine and the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section have declined to prosecute Steele for any of his alleged violations. But it added that the findings of its investigation were being provided to the deputy director of the NPS “for any action deemed appropriate.”
While he was park superintendent, Steele was an ex officio member of the Schoodic Institute board and, according to the OIG, arranged to become a full voting member after his retirement. But before retiring, Steele “took several instrumental actions in helping the board create the [Schoodic Marine Center],” in violation of federal law, the OIG found.
The OIG said those actions included soliciting ideas from other NPS employees for making the Marine Center successful and working on fundraising proposals to present to potential Schoodic Institute donors.
The OIG also ruled that, merely by serving on the Schoodic Institute board, Steele violated the NPS policy against employees “serving on cooperating association boards, even in an ex officio capacity.”
Steele told the Islander he is still a member of the Schoodic Institute board and a volunteer with its Schoodic Marine Center.
“I am contributing my time and energy to hopefully make these both success stories,” he said.
One of the allegations made by the OIG is that Steele “illegally accepted $14,771 in gifts” from the Schoodic Institute and its board members.
The OIG’s report cited a $125-per-person retirement dinner that Schoodic Institute held for Steele in September 2015, about two months before he left the superintendent’s job, to honor him for his service and to raise funds for the organization. Steele and four other members of his family attended the dinner at no cost to them.
“The family’s attendance at this event constituted the subject’s acceptance of a gift worth $625,” the OIG stated.
“Several Acadia staff members and managers said [to the OIG] they had been invited but did not attend the retirement dinner. They said they felt uncomfortable with the event and believed it was not appropriate to attend.”
Alan Goldstein, chairman of the Schoodic Institute board, announced at the retirement dinner that he was giving Steele and his family “a week’s all-expenses-paid vacation on his yacht in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” the OIG said.
“The chairman provided documentation confirming that the subject and his family took the vacation after the subject retired; he estimated the value of the vacation to be $9,256.”
The OIG said the cost of the family’s round-trip airfare to the Virgin Islands was $4,890 and that a review of Steele’s financial records showed that, while he was still the superintendent at Acadia, he deposited a check for $4,890 from the personal account of a Schoodic Institute board member.
“The board member told us she gave the subject the money for his family’s airfare…to show her appreciation for his participation at the nonprofit organization…” the OIG said.
The board member was not identified in the OIG’s report.
The value of the vacation, the airfare and the retirement dinner tickets totaled $14,771.
The OIG’s report cited a federal law prohibiting government employees from receiving any money for their services as government employees from any source other than the government.
“Federal ethics regulations also prohibit government employees from soliciting or accepting gifts given because of their official position or gifts from entities that do business or seek to do business with the employee’s agency,” the OIG’s report said. “The subject’s acceptance of the meals, yacht trip and money all violated this law and regulation.”
Steele has adamantly denied that he knowingly violated any laws or regulations.
“Had I any inkling that this retirement gift was inappropriate, I obviously would have declined,” he said in his email to the Islander. “But these two [Schoodic Institute] donors have been extremely generous to Acadia, and I saw this as just one more gesture of support for what we do together and, since [the vacation] was post retirement, not a problem.”
Steele added, “That gift was announced publicly and even carried in the newspaper [the Sept. 10, 2015 issue of the Islander]…which my regional NPS office always sees, and yet no one raised concerns about the ethics or legal aspects. It saddens me that after a 38-year spotless record of accomplishment, my career now ends with this cloud over me.”
Steele was superintendent at Acadia from 2003 to 2015.
The OIG’s final allegation was that Steele violated the federal law against former government employees communicating with the government “with the intent to influence…regarding any particular matter in which the former employee participated while he was a government employee.”
According to the OIG report, Steele improperly advocated both before and after his retirement for an increase in the park’s subsidy for the Island Explorer bus system.
While still superintendent, the OIG said, Steele emailed other park officials to solicit their support for a $61,000 increase in the park’s “cooperative agreement funding” for the bus system.
“After his park retirement and while working for the [Schoodic Marine Center], the subject emailed park managers…requesting this time a $15,000 increase to the cooperative agreement with the bus service,” the report states.
A note in the report said the Marine Center “stood to benefit from the proposed increase…which would provide increased bus service and potentially more visitors and customers to the [Marine Center].”
The OIG said that, after retiring, Steele also emailed an Acadia facilities manager to request that the park give picnic tables to the Schoodic Institute to be placed at the Marine Center.
“We found email correspondence between the two in which the subject acknowledged that his request for picnic tables has been ‘off base,’” the report said.
Throughout his tenure as park superintendent, Steele worked closely with Friends of Acadia (FOA), the nonprofit organization that supports park projects.
Last Thursday, FOA President and CEO David MacDonald issued the following statement: “Sheridan was a terrific partner to many organizations, including FOA, during his time as superintendent. He worked tirelessly on behalf of Acadia, and always had the resource and the public good foremost in mind. This situation does not diminish our appreciation for his many contributions here.”