IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The National Park Service has reached a settlement with an employee who said she was unfairly fired over the 1990 removal of ancient human remains from the Effigy Mounds National Monument that were only returned three years ago, newly released records show.
Sharon Greener, a former employee at the northeastern Iowa site, says she was a part-time ranger when she was directed by then-superintendent Tom Munson to pack two cardboard boxes with museum artifacts. Munson returned the artifacts — including fragments of jaws and leg bones believed to be 1,000 to 2,000 years old — in 2011 after new superintendent Jim Nepstad opened an inquiry into what happened.
Munson said they had been in the garage of his Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, home, a revelation that outraged the 12 tribes who are affiliated with the monument and consider the site sacred. Tribes were already angry at monument officials for illegally building boardwalks through the site, which had prompted Superintendent Phyllis Ewing's transfer months earlier.
The National Park Service, embarrassed over the revelations, suspended and fired Greener even though she had reported the missing artifacts to superiors at least eight times in the 1990s and 2000s, she claimed in records released under the Freedom of Information Act. The agency accused her of a "lack of candor," placed her on paid leave in 2012 and fired her a year later, in June 2013.
Greener's appeal argued she was fired in violation of whistleblower protections, made a scapegoat when her reports "could no longer be swept under the rug." The agency settled in April, agreeing to reinstate her with back pay, reimburse her attorneys' fees, and allow her to retire early. The $48,000 per-year employee was ultimately paid nearly two years for not working.
One watchdog not involved in Greener's case said it illustrates the agency's "shoot the messenger approach to personnel management," which often features long leaves and unfair investigations.
"Generally, the only time they act is when there is public embarrassment," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents whistleblowers.
State Archaeologist John Doershuk, who was part of a committee that reviewed the artifacts' mishandling, called the settlement curious, saying he'd been told that Greener "consistently denied knowing anything about" the 1990 removal.
Tim Mason of Friends of Effigy Mounds, a group that supports the monument but has criticized its management, called the settlement a waste of tax dollars. "No one is being held accountable," he said.
Greener was told in 1990 that the artifacts were being removed under a process known as deaccession, but she later learned the proper steps hadn't been followed, said her attorney, Bill Roemerman.
Tribal representatives suspect Munson removed the artifacts to circumvent a new federal law requiring museums to return ancient remains to tribes. Many archaeologists worried that the law would harm their research. Munson's attorney has said his client is cooperating with an inquiry by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Previous superintendents looked into what happened to the artifacts, but they weren't recovered until Nepstad's 2011 inquiry.
Greener told an investigator in 2011 then that she packed up the boxes and Munson took them, but she was accused months later of leaving out the detail that Munson drove them away in a personal vehicle, Roemerman said. He argued that detail was irrelevant.
"I said, 'You found them in Munson's garage in Prairie du Chien. Did you think he walked them across the bridge?'" Roemerman said.
Superiors later found a thumb drive in Greener's desk that had been left by another employee and contained a superior's emails that Greener had read, Roemerman said. Her firing document cited "lack of candor" and "inappropriate use of a government computer."