PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A former Acadia National Park superintendent accepted an illegal gift of a Caribbean family vacation valued at more than $14,000 months before his retirement in 2015, according to a report released Thursday.
The report was issued by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the management of federal lands and natural resources.
A lawyer for Sheridan Steele, target of the probe, contends there was nothing illegal about the retirement gift announced at a dinner attended by dozens of members of the local community on Mount Desert Island.
“We don’t deny the facts, but we deny the conclusion. It wasn’t an illegal gift,” said Steele’s attorney, Jay McCloskey. He called the probe “a total waste of investigative resources.”
The U.S. Justice Department declined to prosecute but provided the report to the National Park Service deputy director “for any action deemed appropriate.”
According to the report, a board member and board chairman of the Schoodic Institute provided the park official with $4,890 for airfare to the U.S. Virgin Islands and a yacht outing valued at $9,256. The gift was announced at a 2015 fundraiser in which Steele was guest of honor, and his family’s attendance free of charge constituted another gift of $625, the report said.
Don Kent, president and CEO of the Schoodic Institute, which promotes scientific literacy and environmental stewardship, said board members wanted to reward Steele’s federal service with a gift. He said they didn’t realize it was improper.
Steele and his family didn’t actually go on the vacation until after his retirement.
“Clearly we need to do a little more education. This is an opportunity for us to educate our staff and board about the intricacies of federal policy,” Kent said.
The report also found that Steele violated federal law while working with the nonprofit organization as a park official after negotiating for a post-retirement job, and then by communicating with National Park Service employees on matters related to the nonprofit after retiring.
Steele, who retired in October 2015, worked in the National Park Service for 38 years at six different parks. His last 12 years were at Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, a period during which the Schoodic Institute was created on former Navy property.
The Schoodic Institute is one of 18 learning centers associated with national parks, and it’s operated as a nonprofit with a variety of funding sources including private and public money.
After his retirement, Steele joined the Schoodic Institute board, which amounted to a part-time job where he was reimbursed for expenses but did not receive a salary, Kent said.
Steele had a reputation for having vision and an ability to get things done while serving as Acadia National Park superintendent.
David McDonald, president and CEO of Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit that partners to protect natural and cultural resources, said Steele was a “terrific partner” to many nonprofits associated with the park.
“He worked tirelessly on behalf of Acadia, and always had the resource and public good foremost in his public mind. This situation does not diminish our appreciation for his many contributions here,” he said.