Investigation finds ranger used illegal drugs
An investigation into a June 2018 incident involving the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Pisgah District Ranger Greg Wozniak concluded that Wozniak violated both Tennessee drug laws and federal rules found in the U.S. Department of Interior Personnel Bulletin and in a 1986 executive order mandating a drug-free federal workplace.
The findings were included in a Sept. 5, 2018, report from the National Park Service’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which The Smoky Mountain News obtained July 25 through a March 19 Freedom of Information Act request.
The investigation into Wozniak, who has retained his district ranger title and pay but has not been allowed to perform law enforcement duties for the last 13 months, began June 13 following a June 12 car accident in Knoxville, Tennessee.
According to the narrative on the police department’s initial incident report, around 8 p.m. Officer Trisha Ward was called to the scene of a two-vehicle accident at the intersection of North Hall of Fame Drive and the I-40 East ramp. Wozniak collided with a vehicle traveling straight through the light when attempting to make a left-hand turn. Both drivers claimed to have a green light, an accident report said, and there were no witnesses to determine who had the right-of-way.
When Ward arrived, the other driver told here that Wozniak exited his Toyota Tacoma after the crash, took a box out and threw it into the bushes, the police report said. He then went into the bushes, retrieved the box, and threw it off the highway bridge onto the roadway below. When Ward stepped to the end of the bridge she saw a burgundy tackle box lying on the roadway. Officer Stephen Mercado then arrived and retrieved it, inside finding 10.1 grams of marijuana, 6.1 grams of mushrooms and six THC edibles.
Wozniak was arrested and charged with two counts of simple possession/casual exchange — one for marijuana, one for other drugs — class A misdemeanors with a combined bail of $1,500.
He was not, however, charged with driving under the influence, though the accident report stated that Wozniak “had been drinking” — in fact, no alcohol test was ever performed, and no charges actually stuck. The possession charges were dismissed following a hearing on July 20, 2018, and later expunged. Record of them no longer exists at the Knox County Courthouse.
The Blue Ridge Parkway learned of the arrest the same day it happened, when Lt. Tracy Hunter of the Knoxville Police Department contacted Parkway Supervisory Ranger Debra Flowers at about 10:50 p.m., according to the initial complaint filed June 13 and obtained through a FOIA request.
Hunter told Flowers about the incident, saying that Wozniak was “uninjured but shaken up” and that officers detected “an odor of alcohol” on him and recovered the tackle box containing marijuana and mushrooms.
“The on-scene officer contacted and briefed Lt. Hunter and after consultation with ADA it was determined that due to the length of time on scene (50 minutes), and that Wozniak was already under arrest for possession, the DUI investigation would not proceed,” the document reads.
Hunter also reported that Wozniak was quick to flash his badge upon the officer’s arrival.
“Lt. Hunter further stated that when the officer arrived on scene, he presented his badge and credentials to her,” the document states. “It was after this and after the tackle box were recovered that Wozniak was placed under arrest for possession of PCS.”
When Wozniak submitted to a voluntary interview the next month, however, he told a different story. According to a transcript of the interview with OPR’s Assistant Special Agent in Charge Les Seago, dated July 12, 2018, and included as an attachment to the investigative report, Wozniak said that he did not show his badge before the arrest.
“When did you tell ‘em that you were a officer?” asked Seago.
“Um, I believe one of ‘em looked in the car and it was a PR-24 in there and a flashlight or something and — and, you know, they mentioned that and I told ‘em, you know, check my wallet and ...” replied Wozniak.
Later in the interview he clarified that he was already in custody before the police learned he was an officer.
“I did not flash my badge immediately,” said Wozniak.
Wozniak told Seago that he was having some “depression issues and some other things going on” and that he was visiting a friend who had a friend who had some marijuana and mushrooms. He bought himself about $100 worth.
“OK, and were you using the drugs?” asked Seago.
“Uh, a little bit that day,” Wozniak replied. “That was kinda the first time probably since college,” which he said later in the interview was about 25 years ago.
Wozniak said he’d had “a couple hits” of the marijuana around 4:30 or 5 p.m., before going out for dinner with his friends. He told Seago that he had had “a beer or two” with dinner but wasn’t drunk and didn’t feel high when he got behind the wheel. The car accident occurred at 8:18 p.m., according to the arrest warrant.
Wozniak tested negative for drugs during a test conducted June 25, 2018, 13 days after the incident.
Board of Inquiry completed
Following completion of the investigative report, a Board of Inquiry was held to review the case and deliver recommendations as to how it should be resolved. According to the NPS Resource Manual-9, Boards of Inquiry consist of five or seven voting members, with a chairperson appointed by the deputy chief, operations and policy in consultation with the regional chief ranger.
The chairperson then appoints additional members, including a second commissioned employee, a qualified personnelist not involved in the present situation, a recognized training specialist and a National Park Service manager, preferably with law enforcement experience. In addition, the employee being investigated may choose one other NPS employee to present information on his or her behalf, but that person is not a voting member of the board.
For a commissioned employee like Wozniak, Board of Inquiry recommendations could include a return to full-duty status, continuation of the suspension of commission or revocation of a commission.
According to Steve Stinnett, a 29-year veteran of the Park Service who concluded his career by serving as the Parkway’s chief ranger from 2009 to 2014, Boards of Inquiry are rare — there was not one concerning a Parkway employee during his eight years there, he said.
The decision as to what should happen to an investigated employee’s law enforcement commission is made by a law enforcement-based chain of command that ends in Washington, D.C., said Stinnett. At the park level, the superintendent decides if the person should remain employed. If the person was hired to a law enforcement position but has their commission pulled by the national office, then they will no longer be able to perform all the duties of that position.
The RM-9 states that the park superintendent must conduct “an objective and impartial review of the BOI findings and recommendations” upon receiving them. The superintendent then sends the regional director, in writing, any request to revoke the employee’s commission, along the Board of Inquiry recommendations.
The Parkway received the Board of Inquiry report on March 15, but no action has yet been taken, said Leesa Brandon, the Parkway’s public information officer. The Smoky Mountain News has submitted a FOIA request for the report.
“A timeline for resolution of this matter has not yet been finalized. Every federal employee is entitled to due process under personnel law and policies, and timelines for the final adjudication of cases can vary,” Brandon said via email.
In these types of situations, said Stinnett, there is no set timeline to reach a final resolution. The federal government has myriad processes and procedures that must be followed when it comes to personnel issues.
“It’s just a matter of thoroughness and making sure we’re not stepping on the employee’s rights, but on the other side you want to make sure that you do something that’s going to stick,” he said.
Impact to the Parkway’s busiest district
Wozniak is one of 10 law enforcement rangers working in the Pisgah District of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said Brandon, a staffing level that has remained constant for the past five years despite a steady increase in visitation to that part of the Parkway.
Including 164 of the Parkway’s 469 miles of roadway, the Pisgah Ranger District is the Parkway’s largest. In 2014, the Parkway reported 3.98 million recreation visits to the Pisgah, 28.55 percent of the 13.94 million Parkway visits made that year. Visitation to the Pisgah District rose steadily every year since to a peak of 4.57 million in 2017, 28.42 percent of the total 16.09 million visits. It fell slightly to 4.35 million in 2018 but made up a larger share of the total visits at 29.63 percent— extraordinarily wet weather and maintenance issues depressed visitation last year.
The district accounted for a disproportionate share of logged law enforcement incidents in 2018, with 1,039 incidents in the Pisgah District compared to 2,689 incidents on the Parkway as a whole. That means the Pisgah District accounted for 38.64 percent of total incidents despite including only 34.97 percent of the roadway and attracting 29.63 percent of the visitation that year.
For the past 13 months, Wozniak has been drawing his district ranger’s salary of $73,000 but has not been permitted to perform law enforcement duties, instead spending his time on work related to park activities that don’t involve law enforcement. However, said Brandon, law enforcement coverage has not suffered as a result.
“District rangers spend only 10 to 15 percent of their time in field patrol duties,” she said in an email. “Well over 80 percent of a district ranger’s time is spent on program management and administrative duties. Field staff and first line supervisors continue to provide the same level of day-to-day protection efforts we have provided historically.”
According to Brandon, all of the law enforcement positions on the Pisgah District are currently filled. But because it’s Park Service policy not to fill positions until they are vacated, it’s common to have lapsed positions — often even multiple lapsed positions — on any given Parkway district, said Stinnett. That said, being down an officer for a long period of time would hamper the park’s ability to cover the road, and being without a fully enabled district ranger would affect park operations at multiple levels.
“You’re losing a supervisor, because they can’t supervise law enforcement activities,” said Stinnett. “You’re losing somebody who’s the law enforcement supervisor overseeing law enforcement and reviewing reports and the actions of the rangers, providing training, all that type of stuff, also managing incidents and doing actual on-the-ground law enforcement itself. Because it’s such a thin operation it affects all those levels of the operation.”
Wozniak did not return a request for comment.
• June 12, 2018: Wozniak is arrested and charged with two counts of simple possession/casual exchange of controlled substances following a car accident in Knoxville, Tennessee.
• June 13, 2018: Blue Ridge Parkway Supervisory Park Ranger Debra Flowers files a complaint against Wozniak with the National Park Service Office of Professional Responsibility.
• June 25, 2018: Wozniak is required to submit to a probable cause drug test. Results come back negative.
• July 12, 2018: Wozniak is interviewed by OPR Assistant Special Agent in Charge Les Seago. He admits to drinking and using marijuana the night of the accident.
• July 20, 2018: Charges are dismissed following a court hearing in Knoxville. They are later expunged from the record.
• Sept. 5, 2018: The Blue Ridge Parkway receives the results of the investigative report from OPR.
• March 15, 2019: The Parkway receives the Board of Inquiry report.