Whistleblower who brought forward concerns of missing money at Clinton State Park fired by state; leader says it wasn’t retribution
A whistleblower in a case involving missing documents and accounting irregularities at Clinton State Park has been fired by the state, the Journal-World has learned.
At least three other park employees also have had their jobs impacted, although it is unclear whether they also were fired or placed on leave while the state investigates whether accounting irregularities led to stolen money at the park.
In late March the Journal-World reported on accounting discrepancies that created questions of whether all entrance fees at the state park outside of Lawrence were being deposited into the state’s bank account. In addition, the Journal-World reported that a key set of state documents that could help determine whether money was being stolen or lost at the park had turned up missing.
“I think it is just brutally unfair,” Harvey Irby, a longtime camp host and seasonal employee at the park said of his dismissal, which happened on April 22.
Irby had provided information to the Journal-World for the original story on the condition of anonymity because he feared it could impact his position with the park, which he had held for 11 years. After his firing, Irby gave the Journal-World permission to reveal his identity as a source.
“What I honestly think is the article in the paper embarrassed them and now they are just trying to sweep everything away,” Irby said.
The leader of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism denies that Irby was fired out of retribution. Brad Loveless, secretary of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said there was “a whole other set of data” that led to Irby’s dismissal. Because the issue is a personnel matter, he said he couldn’t provide further details on the decision surrounding Irby.
A multimonth investigation by the Journal-World found evidence that people were paying park fees at Clinton State Park, but the state’s records that account for that money being received and deposited did not list the fees as ever having been received. For a one-month period in the summer of 2016, the Journal-World found at least 18 permits — totaling anywhere from about $150 to $500 — were unaccounted for.
The Journal-World had evidence of other missing permits in other months. The newspaper filed an open records request for all related permit accounting documents from April 1, 2016, to Dec. 31, 2016, which coincides with a time when a former employee said it was “all-out war on the park’s cash-based system.” The state was unable to fill the open records request because Wildlife, Parks and Tourism leaders said someone had removed the documents from the park’s storage shed.
photo by: Nick Krug
Loveless, who has served as secretary of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism since Gov. Laura Kelly’s term began earlier this year, said an investigation into the matter continues. Loveless did confirm the state has taken personnel action as a result of the investigation thus far.
“We have made some changes that have been permanent and then we have made some changes that are just temporary, kind of interim things,” Loveless said in a brief phone interview with the Journal-World. “Sometimes you have to take a step back and say the first thing to do is, like my dad used to tell me, lay down the shovel and quit digging the hole you are in.”
Loveless said the series of first steps have included removing some people from their jobs.
“The first step is to remove those people from the circumstance,” Loveless said. “Not to say that they did anything wrong, but to say that we have concerns and in order to protect and be good stewards of the money we have, we need to ask those people to step away from that role temporarily as we really understand the truth about what happened. We have made some changes and we are waiting to analyze the information we have to determine if other changes are needed.”
Irby said three other people, including a ranger and administrative staff, are no longer on the job at Clinton State Park. Multiple other sources also have confirmed that certain employees are no longer showing up for work at the park.
Irby said he definitely was not placed on leave but rather was fired, which has forced him to find new living arrangements. As part of his job, he lived rent-free in a camp trailer at the park, and was paid part-time wage during camping season. Irby said the state sent five park rangers from other jurisdictions — who had been assigned to the investigation — to come to his camp trailer on April 22. He was told his services were no longer needed and that he could no longer stay at the campsite. He said he was not given an official reason for his dismissal.
“I asked a dozen times, and all I could get is they didn’t need to give a reason,” Irby said. “Finally, one said they were cleaning house.”
Loveless said he is unsure whether Irby was given a reason for his dismissal. But Loveless said his dismissal had nothing to do with his status as a whistleblower in the case. Loveless said that when he was informed of the personnel action, he did not make the connection that Irby was a whistleblower in the case.
While the department may not have known that Irby had talked with the Journal-World for its article, it does have documentation that lists Irby as the key individual raising concerns that cash from the park’s self-pay permit station was not being properly handled.
Specifically, a July 2017 letter written by park maintenance worker Chris Phelps, identified Irby on multiple occasions as being the person who first raised the concerns that “I think we’ve got some embezzling going on.” Phelps, now retired, said the letter was faxed to a department manager in 2017. The letter also documents that Irby verbally expressed the same concerns to department managers. The Journal-World went over the letter with Loveless and other department officials in detail about a month before Irby’s dismissal.
Loveless, though, said when he was being informed of Irby’s dismissal, he didn’t make the connection that Irby also was the person identified in the letter.
“I wasn’t smart enough to say this is the same guy bringing forth the information before,” Loveless said. “I’m super, super sensitive to the idea of retribution to a person. People who raise questions are valuable. We are constantly asking for that type of feedback. That is a plus in terms of a person’s record to us, not a negative.”
Irby was in a unique position to spot irregularities in the park’s self-pay permit process. A large part of his job was to check campsites on a regular basis and manage the tag system that campers use to show that they have paid for their camping spots.
Those tags are pieces of paper that hang from a post at the campsite. Normally, Irby would remove those tags after campers left and dispose of them. But when he started to become suspicious that fees weren’t being properly accounted for, Irby would keep those pieces of paper, which each had a permit number on them. He then was able to check the permit numbers on the tags with permit numbers on a reconciliation sheet, which department leaders have acknowledged often hung on a clipboard next to the office copy machine. The reconciliation sheets were used to account for the money that was taken from the self-pay box at the park. Irby was finding multiple instances where permit numbers that he was collecting at campsites weren’t showing up on the reconciliation sheets, which presumably meant the cash from those permits also weren’t being deposited into the state’s accounts.
The Journal-World investigation did not determine if park employees were pocketing cash from the self-pay station and then manipulating the accounting records. Instead, the investigation’s main finding was that the process at Clinton State Park — and likely at parks across the state — was to send a single employee to remove the cash from the self-pay station. Department leaders acknowledged that a more sound cash handling system would be to send two people to remove the cash from the box, making it more difficult for an individual to decide to pocket the money and destroy the permit. Department leaders said the system of having one person remove the money was done largely out of necessity because of staffing shortages at the park.
Since the Journal-World brought the concerns to light, the cash handling process at Clinton now involves two employees going to the box to remove the money, department leaders said. Irby and others, though, said that in reality, the self-pay station has been closed most of the time since the Journal-World article.
Loveless said the department has made a decision to install at least one self-service kiosk at Clinton, which would take credit cards and also would have a built-in tracking system of the permits that were issued. He said the Clinton kiosk would be a test to determine how well such a system could work at other parks.
Loveless said he believed there would be other findings that could be shared with the public once the investigation was complete. He hopes that will be within two to four weeks. Thus far, he said there is no update to share on what happened to the missing documents.
“There were some clear steps that had to be taken and those were taken immediately,” Loveless said of the investigation results to date. “There were others that were more complex and involved a second series of interviews, and are less clear. That is why we are taking our time and trying to do the further investigation before we make final decisions.”
As for Irby, he said he has considered hiring a lawyer to investigate whether the state has violated a law related to punishing whistleblowers. But, at the moment, he hasn’t taken that action. Part of him wants to simply move on, he said.
“It has been ridiculously frustrating,” Irby said of the firing and the years of efforts to try to draw attention to the money handling problems. “The only part of it that was good was after they told me I was fired, word got out quick. There was a parade of cars to my campsite telling me how unfair it was, how ridiculous it was and how much they would miss me.”