Report fails to answer questions on Carrizo Plain manager’s suicide

Report fails to answer questions on suicide
posted 05/04/07

Report fails to answer questions on Carrizo Plain manager’s suicide

David Whitney

WASHINGTON—New information in a heavily redacted investigative report by the Interior Department’s inspector general has only added to the questions surrounding the suicide of the former manager of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.It was May 2, 2005, when Marlene Braun laid down on a makeshift bed outside the Goodwin House, located in the monument, and shot herself.

Since then, investigations into her death have piled facts upon facts. The latest batch was released recently under the Freedom of Information Act.

Its release, just days before the second anniversary of her suicide, did not clear up questions about what went so horribly wrong in Braun’s relationship with her boss, Ron Huntsinger, and why no one stepped in to help. The report was coldly exonerating, but also sadly condemning.

“The Office of Inspector General determined that BLM was compliant with federal law and Department of the Interior personnel regulations,” it said. But in the next sentence, the report said nothing was done to resolve the “longstanding differences” between Braun and Huntsinger, “leading to a breakdown in trust, communication and cooperation.”

Huntsinger, now science coordinator for the agency in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment on the inspector general’s findings. The monument was created by President Clinton just hours before he left office. Its 250,000 acres, roughly equidistant from San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield, are the last remaining expanse of indigenous grasslands in the state.

The monument’s status as conservation lands represented a huge cultural shift for the BLM, for which cattle grazing had been a core purpose. Braun was the first monument manager, full of vigor initially, and ill and wasted from stress and intimidation at the end of her time in the job. At the heart of the differences between Huntsinger and Braun, the report said, was the future of grazing on the monument, with Braun wanting to see it limited.

According to the report, Braun was regarded by other BLM staff as confrontational, controlling, “one-sided and hard to deal with.” As tensions worsened, she was suspended five days for not following orders.

A vacation request was refused. When the stress turned into health problems, she tangled with her superior over medical leave.

By April 27, 2005, the report said the situation was so “out of control” that Braun was contacted about mediation. She never returned the call, which was unusual for her. And on that first Monday in May when she was supposed to drive to Bakersfield for a meeting, she sent instead a two-page e-mail.

“I cannot bear the thought of coming into this office or ever again to meet with (Huntsinger),” she said. “I cannot take any more abuse from him, his lies about my character and my abilities, and any more of the humiliation I have had to endure for the past year.”

Officials in the Bakersfield office sensed something was gravely wrong. But BLM personnel were not dispatched to her home until 35 minutes later, and it was a 75-mile drive from Bakersfield. The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department was not called until an hour and 10 minutes after Braun’s e-mail.

Law enforcement and emergency personnel did not reach Braun’s home until two hours after the e-mail was sent.

Braun was found in the front yard, wounded but alive. Her two dogs lay nearby, shot dead. She was flown by helicopter to the Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria, where she was pronounced dead within an hour.

She had prepared for her suicide for several days. Belongings were packed and labeled. A note was left. Computers and materials belonging to the BLM were clearly marked. An eight-page letter was mailed.

“I am weary of working, of moving, and of dealing with conflict over environmental decisions that mean a lot to me,” she wrote in the letter. Kathy Hermes, trustee of Braun’s estate, said the inspector general’s report lifted no curtains on her friend’s death. “It pretty much states what we already knew,” she said.

But that is not the same as saying all questions have been answered, she and others said.

They wanted to know why there isn’t more detail in the report on the bullying and humiliation Braun endured in her job. They also wanted to know why emergency crews weren’t called sooner, or responded faster.

“To me, what they left out is more important than what’s in there,” said Karen Schambach, California director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. She said there are other cases of bullying by superiors that she is watching, including one “remarkably similar” to Braun’s.

“They try to paint her has this difficult employee,” she said. “They could have done a lot more to resolve this, but they didn’t. She was emotionally brutalized.”

Among the ironies is that Huntsinger had served as an alternative dispute resolution management adviser for the BLM’s California region, but according to the report, none of those skills was tapped in his escalating problems with Braun.

In the two years since Braun’s death, the BLM has renewed work on a management plan for the monument. An advisory committee is considering what it should contain, and grazing remains one of the most contentious issues, said Neil Havlik, San Luis Obispo’s natural resources manager who headed the panel when Braun was alive, and is doing so again.

Havlik is among those for whom the inspector general’s report brings no closure.

The signs were there, Havlik said, that Braun was careening toward disaster. She was losing weight to the point of gauntness, and no one intervened.

“I saw things, and in retrospect probably should have spoken up,” he said. “I feel bad I didn’t do anything.”


One Response

  1. There is an interesting new blog entry at about the investigation. The writer raises good questions.

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