Kansas whistleblower says bringing up missing money cost him his parks position

A whistleblower who raised alarms about missing money at Clinton State Park said his life has been turned upside down after the Kansas parks department dismissed him.

He says it was retaliation for bringing up the problem.

The missing money came from a self-pay permit box at the entrance to the state park at the western edge of Lawrence.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism denies that removing Harvey Irby from his position was retaliatory. Spokesman Ron Kaufman also said Irby had never even been an employee, instead characterizing him as a volunteer and “camp host.”

The arrangement, according to Irby, was half-time volunteer in exchange for living arrangements at the park and half-time employee.

Irby had worked at the Douglas County park year-round for more than a decade, taking care of reservations and checking permits. In that time, he said, he made friends with visitors and people knew they could call on him for assistance if they needed things like a picnic table or a jump start.

More than six years ago, Irby said, he noticed cash missing from permit fees collected at the entrance. He reported his concerns repeatedly to supervisors and managers.

“It still kept going,” he said.

Eventually an investigation by the parks department was initiated. When Irby was called in for an interview, he said, the meeting turned confrontational. He said investigators were “in (his) face.”

On April 22, Irby said, five park rangers surrounded his camper.

“I looked out and I was shocked,” he said.

Irby was told his services were no longer needed, he said.

“It’s probably one of the most unfair things that’s ever happened in my life,” he said. “It left a very bad taste in my mouth.”

Irby believes his forced departure was 100 percent about speaking up and that the department questioned his honesty when he was only trying to do the right thing.

Now Irby is left in need of a new job and a new place to live.

“I’m totally in turmoil,” he said.

Kaufman, the state parks spokesman, said the department severed ties with Irby because there were “other issues involved with his performance,” and not because Irby was a whistleblower.

Kaufman said he was not even aware that Irby was the whistleblower until he read a story Wednesday in the Lawrence Journal-World, which first reported on the missing money.

One temporary employee has also been let go.

There is an ongoing investigation into the missing money, but Kaufman said some documents have disappeared, making it “difficult to trace the course of events.”

The park has made changes in how camping permits are purchased. Instead of using a self-pay station, visitors must pay at the office or online. Any time cash is involved, two people are responsible, Kaufman said.

The department is planning to install automatic permit machines at Clinton State Park.

Similar to parking garage ticket machines, the devices take credit cards. Kaufman said that will help better account for funds. The machines will be tested at Clinton and may be rolled out across the state’s other parks.

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Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.