IOWA CITY, Iowa — A former National Park Service official in Iowa says she was unfairly blamed and fired for approving illegal construction projects that damaged a sacred American Indian burial site.
In an age discrimination lawsuit filed last week, former Effigy Mounds National Monument superintendent Phyllis Ewing contends the agency made her a "scapegoat" to appease interest groups and protect other officials' reputations. After being removed as superintendent in 2010 and transferred to the National Park Service's regional office in Omaha, Nebraska, Ewing claims she worked for 3½ years with barely any official duties before she was fired in 2013.
A federal investigation made public last year found that Ewing and a subordinate, Tom Sinclair, repeatedly violated laws that required archaeological studies and input from tribes before they built boardwalks, trails and a maintenance shed.
The projects, costing $3 million over a decade, removed stone artifacts and impacted scenic views at the site in northeast Iowa, which contains burial and ceremonial mounds affiliated with 12 tribes. Tribal groups and some environmentalists were outraged by the damage at the park, which was created in 1949 to preserve "a significant phase of mound building culture of prehistoric American Indians."
Ewing, now 73 and living in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, contends in the lawsuit she was provided very little training on the mandatory reviews before she became superintendent in 1999 and that it was unfair for the National Park Service to expect her to perform them appropriately. The lack of training, exacerbated by tight funding and travel budgets, was "epidemic in the agency," the lawsuit says.
Ewing's superiors at the regional office uncovered violations of the National Historic Preservation Act in 2009 during construction of one of three boardwalks. After the problems continued, the agency gave Ewing the option in April 2010 of retiring or transferring to a position as a curator at the Omaha office.
Once in Omaha, Ewing alleges she learned that co-workers were instructed not to communicate or cooperate with her and generally treated her with disdain and disrespect.
"(Ewing) was forced to walk on egg shells, never being able to feel welcome or at home there," the lawsuit says. "The fact is, Plaintiff never had an official job, barely official duties, and believes that the agency was biding time as it planned an opportunity to remove her."
Federal prosecutors declined to file charges in 2012 after a two-year criminal investigation. The National Park Service fired Ewing in November 2013, saying she failed to perform her duties and follow guidelines while superintendent. The lawsuit, which seeks compensation for lost wages and benefits and additional damages, claims those allegations were false and unfair and a pretext for age discrimination.
National Park Service spokeswoman Christine Powell declined comment Monday. In response to the scandal, the agency has said that it "ramped up its training program" for superintendents to understand how to comply with federal law.
Critics of Ewing and the National Park Service's handling of the case said they were skeptical of her claims.
"Everyone knew she was going to pull this 'I'm an old lady' defense," said Tim Mason, a former park ranger who filed a complaint in 2010 that sparked the criminal investigation. "Now it will drag through the process and the American taxpayer will pay more. Hopefully, the feds don't lay down and give up."
Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the park service's decision to allow Ewing to transfer was an attempt to keep the problems quiet but ended up making them worse.
"This whole affair showed a monstrous lack of judgment," he said of the construction. "And after the park service confirmed all of it, they refused to confront it and tried to shut her away some place in hopes that she would retire."