BLM Right to Suspend Employee

In this article in The Bakersfield Californian, the newspaper reported a version of the investigative report produced by the Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General, based on a letter the IG wrote condensing the report. At the time, the entire report was not released. The interim-final report (no final report has ever been issued) appeared on May 5, 2007, two years and 3 days after Marlene Braun’s suicide.

Report: BLM right to suspend employee

| Monday, Aug 14 2006 10:55 PM

Last Updated: Monday, Aug 14 2006 11:18 PM

The Bureau of Land Management could have done more to ease tension among staff in Bakersfield, but the agency was right to discipline an employee who later killed herself, a federal investigation found.

Marlene Braun, former manager of Carrizo Plain National Monument, shot her two dogs and then herself in May 2005. In a suicide note, she blamed her boss, Ron Huntsinger, saying “she could no longer take (his) abuse, humiliation and lies,” wrote Earl Devaney, inspector general of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Devaney’s office has yet to release a detailed account of Braun’s death, but its findings are summarized in a two-page letter sent to members of Congress and others Aug. 8. These are its main points:

* BLM was right to suspend Braun for complaining about Huntsinger to the Nature Conservancy and state Department of Fish and Game, BLM’s partners in managing the Carrizo Plain.

* As a manager, Braun had become “confrontational and one-sided,” steamrolling opposition and refusing to attend management training.

* Huntsinger and other managers failed to document her “performance problems.”

* BLM should have intervened and tried to resolve differences between Braun and Huntsinger.

* BLM’s emergency response to Braun’s suicide was appropriate, and the agency was right to remove BLM computers from Braun’s home after she was taken to the hospital.

Braun and Huntsinger went to war over Carrizo Plain National Monument, and, specifically, the role cattle grazing should play in its future. Braun believed Huntsinger protected grazing at the expense of the environment, according to her notes and memos. Their animosity grew while putting the finishing touches on a management plan for the monument, a 250,000-acre shrine to the vast grasslands that once blanketed Central California.

The plan, which sat nearly complete and on hold for months before Braun’s death, is once again showing signs of life. BLM reinstated a citizens group to review drafts of the plan, and Huntsinger says he’s trying to resume collaboration with the Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Fish and Game.

The people

Huntsinger, who continues to manage the BLM field office in Bakersfield, had no comment on the accusations in Braun’s suicide note.

“I really don’t think there’s anything I could say that would be any more informative than what’s in the report,” he said.

The rest of the staff is doing fine, he said. Employees know about the inspector general’s investigation, and, so far, no one has taken the agency up on its offer to provide counseling.

“Anytime you go through a death in the family it’s really trying,” he said. “I think they’ve accepted it.”

Some staff members might find their own opinions echoed in the inspector general’s findings. Several BLM employees have expressed discomfort with what they see as Braun’s martyrdom. The reality was far more complicated, they said.

“Most of those perceptions are so wrong,” said Shane Barrow, a BLM employee, in an interview last year. “The person that was the bully was Marlene.”

Braun’s supporters are disheartened by the inspector general’s conclusions, and wonder if they might be skewed by their sources — Huntsinger and his staff from the Bakersfield field office.

“Very few people at BLM really understood everything that was happening,” said Anne McMahon, former program manager for the Nature Conservancy. “I know (Braun) could be difficult when she had her mind made up (but) this a very complex and very tragic situation.”

Others dislike that Braun is being tarred as insubordinate without releasing evidence of her misdeeds.

“It’s unfair” to circulate findings without citing specifics, said Patrick Veesart, Braun’s close friend who lives on the monument.

The plan

The Carrizo faithful are anxious to get back to work.

“The monument is still out there, it’s a wonderful place and (we) care about it just as much as ever, if not more,” said Neil Havlik, a veteran member of the advisory committee and natural resource manager for the city of San Luis Obispo. “Having the plan go forward … is honoring Marlene’s memory.”

Grazing on the monument is a not black-and-white issue, and, if used correctly, it can be a tool to root out non-native species, he said. About a dozen ranchers currently hold permits to graze on the Carrizo.

Carl Twisselman, a new committee member and rancher whose property borders the Carrizo, is also optimistic. “I think we can work together to make that monument work,” he said.

Story so far

Around January 2005: Work on a management plan for Carrizo Plain National Monument stalled, mostly because of disagreements over cattle grazing.

May 2005: Monument Manager Marlene Braun killed herself and left a note saying she could no longer take the abuse from her boss, who she believed was in favor of grazing at the expense of the environment.

October 2005: The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into Braun’s death.

July-August: BLM reinstated a citizens’ advisory committee to advise it on the management plan. It also decided to put the plan through rigorous environmental review.

August: The inspector general sent a letter to members of Congress and others saying BLM was right to discipline Braun.


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