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VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK- The Timberjay’s eight-month long quest to uncover details behind an apparent assault by two park rangers on a local businessman on Lake Kabetogama continues to be …
VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK- The Timberjay’s eight-month long quest to uncover details behind an apparent assault by two park rangers on a local businessman on Lake Kabetogama continues to be blocked by federal officials. Based on the limited communication provided by the National Park Service, it appears that much of the resistance to the newspaper’s inquiries is coming from regional Park Service officials in Omaha, even though officials there deny they have issued a gag order on the incident.
The Timberjay has been seeking details of the assault against houseboat rental business owner and operator Justin Ebel, who was tased by park rangers on his own boat last June while attempting to assist an elderly couple who had run their rented houseboat aground in high winds.
Despite numerous requests by the Timberjay for details on the incident, including the probable cause for the boarding of Mr. Ebel’s boat and the use of force against him, the Park Service has provided no information other than the last names of the rangers involved and their dates of employment.
Initially, the Timberjay submitted its questions to VNP Superintendent Bob DeGross, who delegated the response to Chief Law Enforcement Ranger Josh Wentz. Wentz declined to answer any questions and referred all inquiries to the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office arguing that, “the ongoing and active criminal investigation has been turned over to that office.”
Two subsequent emails to the U.S. Attorney’s office went unanswered, and on Aug. 4 the Timberjay filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Interior and National Park Service for “Any incident report, Park Service required use of force report, body camera footage, electronic communications, citations issued, and any other official documentation regarding an incident at Voyageurs National Park in which a taser was discharged against an individual(s) by VNP-NPS law enforcement personnel.” Seven and a half months later, the Park Service has failed to act on any portion of that FOIA request.
NPS policy violation
Since that time, Park Service officials have used various smokescreens to dodge the Timberjay’s questions, although the Park Service has not found such things to be obstacles to reporting out detailed incident information and body camera footage from past incidents at other parks around the country. The Park Service’s initial dodge, that the case remained under investigation, became inoperative in December after citations issued against Ebel were resolved, mostly dismissed.
Park Service policy specifies that the names of those involved in a law enforcement incident, the circumstances pertaining to the incident, arrest warrants and the time and place of arrest, whether weapons were used, charging documents, criminal complaints, indictments, violation notices, and the names of arresting officers is all information that is releasable to the press. Yet park officials have repeatedly declined to provide any such information in response to the Timberjay’s requests.
Regional office response
The newspaper’s latest round of inquiries was initiated in February. The Timberjay was able to obtain probable cause statements for the citations written by one of the VNP rangers involved in the incident from a different federal agency. Provided with copies of the probable cause statements and a list of related questions via a Feb. 6 email, Wentz again declined to provide any answers, indicating that he would have to ask the Park Service’s regional office in Omaha, “what level of information we can give out.”
With no subsequent answers forthcoming from Wentz, Timberjay Publisher Marshall Helmberger took the case for answers directly to Park Service Regional Director Herbert “Bert” Frost. Given the past unresponsiveness of VNP officials and Wentz’s expressed need to get permission from the regional office to release information, Helmberger pointedly asked Frost in a Mar. 1 email if his office had issued a “gag order of any kind regarding the release of information surrounding the June 25 tasing of Justin Ebel” and asked for an explanation of the unwillingness of VNP officials to respond to the newspaper’s inquiries.
Frost did not reply until March 10.
“I want to be unequivocally clear, there is absolutely no ‘gag order’ in place,” Frost said. “I know the park is fully committed to communicating with the local community and others interested in the June 2022 law enforcement.”
Frost noted the Timberjay’s outstanding FOIA request as he skirted other questions posed by Helmberger, including whether the rangers involved in the Ebel incident were under any kind of investigation or suspension. Helmberger immediately responded, disputing Frost’s claim that park officials were committed to communicating.
“Other than Superintendent DeGross’s acknowledgement of the dates of employ of the two officers involved, the National Park Service has provided nothing meaningful in response to our questions for the past nearly eight months,” Helmberger said. “I completely reject the notion implied by Superintendent DeGross that because we have made a FOIA request for certain data, that the NPS cannot respond to basic questions, such as the rationale for the boarding of Mr. Ebel’s boat and his subsequent tasing. He is fully aware that we have asked that question numerous times, in writing, and have yet to receive any response.”
Frost’s response was more of the same.
“The information requested by the Timberjay is being reviewed as part of your paper’s FOIA request. As I’ve mentioned, the FOIA is currently being processed by the NPS FOIA office,” he said. “Until all reviews are complete, we are unable to provide additional information.”
Helmberger responded, calling Frost’s actions “arbitrary.”
Helmberger continued: “You say you are ‘unable to provide additional information’ but that is misstated. You are ‘unwilling’ to provide additional information since there is no legal basis blocking your response. And by instructing VNP officials not to respond to our questions, you are acknowledging what is, in effect, a gag order.”
Given the Park Service’s unwillingness to provide basic facts surrounding the incident, the Timberjay has included top federal elected officials, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Tina Smith, and Rep. Pete Stauber in its correspondence with the Park Service, to no obvious effect. Smith’s office did apparently reach out to Superintendent DeGross, who appears to have assuaged the senator’s representative with an explanation of the park’s “communications plan” and a reiteration of his office’s commitment to full communication with the local community. That representation of the situation has been challenged repeatedly by the Timberjay.
There is little reason to expect a response to the Timberjay’s FOIA request anytime soon. Federal records reviewed by the Timberjay reveal that the Park Service has, by far, the largest backlog of unfulfilled FOIA requests of any agency within the Department of the Interior.
According to a report generated on the FOIA Online website by the Timberjay, the Park Service already had 1,508 unfulfilled FOIA requests pending on the day the Timberjay submitted its request, and has received 1,283 additional requests since then, as of this week. An internal DOI report obtained by the Timberjay acknowledged that “The Department’s overall backlog increased in FY 2022, in part due to an approximate 12 percent increase in the number of FOIA requests received by the NPS FOIA office as compared to FY 2021, resulting in the largest number of requests ever received by NPS.”
Much of that increase was fueled by an increasing number of information requests that stem from law enforcement incidents.
The Timberjay requested expedited processing of its request due to the timely news value associated with the Ebel incident and existing public concern over law enforcement practices at VNP, but the Park Service denied that request. The Park Service originally projected it would have the Timberjay’s FOIA request processed by Sept. 1, 2022, but it has failed to provide any response to the request as of seven months later.
Because of the extent of the Timberjay’s request for documents, it likely falls in the category of “complex” requests. DOI’s annual FOIA report for FY 2022 indicates that it took the Park Service an average of 272.82 days to process such requests in which information was granted.
But the department also has a list of exemptions it can apply to deny requests, something the Park Service did nearly 900 times in FY 2022. It is unknown what exemptions, if any, may be applied to the Timberjay’s FOIA request, although it’s notable that multiple FOIA requests for body camera footage of law enforcement encounters have been denied by Park Service.
The Timberjay did receive some information about its FOIA request in February. After learning that Park Service law enforcement procedures allow body camera footage to be deleted after six months, the Timberjay filed a second FOIA request specifically for that footage to ensure that it was being preserved. That filing generated a response from Erica Beckett with the Park Service’s FOIA Office.
“Please be advised the requested records are not in danger of being destroyed,” Beckett wrote. “The responsive records pertaining to your previous request are currently under final review with the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor (SOL). We hope to have a final response to you very soon.”
The Office of the Solicitor is the department’s legal division and could be presumed to be considering what laws and regulations pertain to the information requested by the Timberjay.
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