On Aug. 30 of 2018, United States Senator Charles Grassley visited Corydon, Iowa, population 1,500.
He spoke to students in the high school library, wooden chairs engraved with graffiti older than the building. A teacher asked about tariffs and trade wars. Grassley turned the discussion to the constitution and checks and balances.
In Grassley’s words, this system of accountability is exactly why he has dedicated so much of his public service to helping whistleblowers.
The executive, legislative and judicial branches offer checks on each other’s power. As Grassley puts it, whether the president of the United States is a Democrat, a Republican, or something else, it is his job, along with the judicial branch, to be a watchdog. He is one of Washington, D.C.’s park rangers.
And at almost 85 years old, Grassley might be part of a dying breed.
When Grassley learned a fellow Iowan was being persecuted for speaking out against the system, it raised the old farm boy’s ire.
“He was being hounded by the Interior Department,” Grassley said. “That’s typical of what they do. I always say a whistleblower is about as welcome as a skunk at a picnic.
“Bob Jackson is an example of how a whistleblower just wants the government to do what the law requires, spend the money the way Congress wants it spent, and when they expose it, then that makes the agency look bad. Agencies don’t like to look bad.
“There’s a culture against whistleblowers. And that culture showed up in his case.
“The father of all whistleblowers was Ernie Fitzgerald, an employee of the Defense Department. He testified before Congress about the C-5 cargo plane. Nixon was caught on tape saying, ‘Fire that SOB.’
“They fired him, but he later got his job back. And what did they do after he got his job back? They put him in the attic with nothing to do. That’s the way you treat patriotic people like whistleblowers.”
Current Chief of Staff for Grassley, Jill Kozeny, said Jackson’s case was one of the most important of the Senator’s long political career.
“It was a big deal,” Kozeny said. “Whistleblowers get a lot of pressure put on them in the federal bureaucracy. Grassley doesn’t care who is president when he helps those people.”
Throughout his 30 years of national park service, both man and bear threatened Bob Jackson’s life. Humans were simply more articulate—if only slightly—in voicing their displeasure with Jackson’s presence.
“Someone’s going to shoot you one day!” a poacher once growled at Action Jackson as he patrolled the Thorofare, farther from any road in the continental United States.
“They’d better kill me the first shot,” Jackson retorted.
In another instance, Jackson returned from a walk to find a drugstore cowboy responsible for the government’s corral smashing the head of Jackson’s packhorse against the tree it was tied to, before pulling out a shoeing hammer and using the sharp end to claw into the horse’s rump, ripping away flesh.
“I walked up to him on the other side of the hitching rail,” Jackson said. “He raised the hammer above his head and said:
‘Jackson, get out of here or I’ll kill you.’
“His eyes were pinpoint and his face gray. I repeated several times, ‘Just put down the hammer.’ His arm lowered slowly, he dropped it with a clang and went to the barn, his entire body shaking.”
When Jackson reported the incident to his superiors, Jackson was the one in hot water for not following the chain of command.
And even when it was a grizzly that tried to maul him, it was often due to man’s monkeyshines.
In that spirit, perhaps the most frightening encounter for Jackson in his decorated career as backcountry Yellowstone Park ranger involved the late 1990s arrest of several guides who worked for a Wyoming outfitter. The man who owned the operation was good friends with future Vice President Dick Cheney. They would have Christmas dinners together, as highlighted in the social pages of the Jackson Hole News & Guide.
Cheney is infamous for a hunting accident where he shot a friend in the face with a shotgun. Jackson still believes the various wildlife services bowed down to Cheney for what Jackson had done to harm this outfitter’s operation and the reputation of the Department of the Interior—making the agency look bad, as Grassley described, the worst sin of a federal lawman.
Jackson finds it implausible several friends of Cheney involved in his case would never have complained to or discussed the situation with Cheney.
“Dick tried to get me out of the park service,” Jackson proclaimed. “Almost to the man, for the administrators in those agencies, career was more important than doing what they signed up to do. I caught several of that outfitter’s guides—it’s the same area Dick Cheney has hunted before, right outside of Yellowstone.
“The former guides from that camp went inside the park about four miles to get an elk. It was a doctor from Florida, and he didn’t want to go back without a big elk to show everybody. And so, he paid them 10,000 bucks to go into Yellowstone to get a big rack.
“I had tracked those guys down from my stakeout camp nine miles from any of my six patrol cabins. And it was the same place the corrupt game warden for years tried to find out where that camp stash was. Finally, this warden found out from my gullible boss. And that was the end of that well-hidden camp.
“In the end, you track them down, but in this case, they made it to the boundary. I called in help to intercept them at the trailhead.
“They had to forfeit their guns, horses and saddles, and their fine was around $12,000. That case set the state record for the largest fine for a single offense. There was no way I could ever shoot pool at the Cowboy Bar again.
“Those two guides ended up with one of the most influential lawyers out of Jackson Hole. The only way you get somebody like that is if you have a retainer, and those guys didn’t have that kind of money. Their lawyer, at court in Cheyenne, didn’t care about anything except not wanting those guides going to prison. They shelled out the money right after the judge set the fine. And not going to prison meant their boss was assured of not being ratted out.
“One brother of that outfitter actually was a decent man—and became the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service underneath the original George Bush, and so there were a lot of ties with Dick Cheney, of course.
“In the end, when Cheney tried hard to get me out, it was a two-year nationally publicized ordeal.”
Whether Cheney had a hand in persecuting Jackson, it is worth noting Cheney’s first experience in the White House was working for the Nixon administration. Cheney said it taught him “what [a president] has to do in the course of a day.”
Cheney was never shy in espousing his political philosophy, which includes the belief executive authority should have fewer checks from the other two branches of government. In 2005, he proclaimed victory for reinforcing this authority. But this matter of policy is a double-edged sword. If it is followed to its logical conclusion, a president, whether a Democrat, a Republican, or something else—should be beholden to less oversight and therefore held to lower standards.
“Every major newspaper in the country followed my case,” Jackson said. “Senator Grassley became involved with it because his emphasis has been whistleblower or any abuse of a government employee. And so, he came to my defense.
“For the first year, I thought I could handle it myself—I did everything in the back country on my own—but in the end it was bigger than me.
“I’ll always appreciate what Grassley did. When you have a case involving the government, usually you have a five-year backlog. He made sure this one was put to the front. And then all those yellow-bellied administrator lies would need to be validated under oath.
“They flew me to Washington D.C., where we met right outside the Senate halls. It was a bigtime thing. I didn’t get bigheaded, but at the same time I knew it was important. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, were coordinating it. They were working with Grassley’s office.
“In another connection, Cheney’s former Wyoming state chief of staff, who Cheney had put in the Department of the Interior, Paul Hoffman, one day met with Grassley about my case.”
PEER’s executive director Jeff Ruch appreciates the absurdity of that situation:
“I was struck that you had these high-level political appointees from the Department of the Interior going to see a U.S. Senator about a seasonal backcountry ranger, and the fact each of his last three years they refused to hire him. From what we could tell, there was no one better qualified than Jackson. Their refusal, each time, couldn’t be defended, which is why we prevailed three times—but they were no less pissed about it.”
Hoffman’s gambit backfired. It only made Grassley dig in deeper in defense of Jackson.
“Mr. Jackson has an impressive record with the park service and the kind of experience and know-how needed to deter poaching,” Grassley went on record as saying. “When someone like him speaks up about unethical practices and gets sidelined and shut out, then there are a lot of questions for the National Park Service to answer. Mr. Jackson deserves those answers. I’m intent on stopping this kind of intimidation so other governments workers who are willing to speak up about problems are not deterred.”
Grassley did not stop there. On April 10, 2003, he sent a letter to the director of the National Park Service, Fran Mainella. Grassley wrote:
“Officials at Yellowstone, the Park Service and even the Interior Department itself have made an effort—in public and in private—to discredit and insult Ranger Jackson in both his official and personal capacities.
“Last year, the Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Paul Hoffman, visited me and made a number of very serious allegations against ranger Jackson. These allegations pertained not only to Jackson’s official duties as a ranger, but also concerned his private, personal affairs. Subsequently, my staff was provided with Ranger Jackson’s personnel file, which fails to convince me of the veracity of Mr. Hoffman’s allegations.”
Before Cheney named Hoffman deputy assistant secretary, Hoffman’s most notable post was as the head of Cody, Wyoming’s chamber of commerce.
“How had he ascended to such a political perch?” Michael Shnayerson asked hypothetically in a 2006 Vanity Fair article. “Perhaps because in the 1980s he’d served as Wyoming state director to then congressman Dick Cheney. Hoffman was a crony….”
However, Grassley continued to apply pressure, and declared to the Los Angeles Times:
“It looks like the Park Service would rather lose out on ranger Jackson’s enforcement skills than suffer scrutiny for what’s wrong in Yellowstone. Preemptive retaliation is still retaliation in my book. A clear answer has never been given to me for the Park Service’s decision to not retain ranger Jackson, and I intend to get one.”
“Grassley would throw them out within five minutes, because they were trying to place dirt where there wasn’t,” Jackson said of Hoffman’s attempt to portray him as a pornographer. “They tried to influence Grassley not to take the case and not support me.
“Even though Grassley was dealing with another Republican it was more important for Grassley to follow what was true. That really impressed me about his character.”
For around two years, Jackson took his spot on the blacklist. He described his popularity among park administrators as the equivalent of being contaminated by radiation.
Jackson felt the government went to the hyperbole of portraying him as a terrorist, or at least a loose cannon. He did carry a high-powered rifle.
“Like I was rogue doing it on my own. They tried to use my accomplishments against me. I was told I caught more poachers in Yellowstone than all the rangers combined for 70 years—in the end, that success caused a lot of problems for the park service.
“There’s a lot of big money. In a seven-week elk hunting season, an outfitter could gross about $500,000 just because of the fat cat clients they had. It was a high-profile area. Supposedly the best elk hunting in the United States.”
Jackson believes both his private and government telephones were tapped, that his mail was opened and then poorly sealed back up—including a package from Tom Brokaw—and that his front country residence, in his absence, was searched three times. He used a payphone for all interviews.
“One of the reasons Jackson was authoritative was because he was responsible for more poaching arrests than just about anyone ever,” said Ruch. Jackson caught the men hunting illegally, who were employed by Cheney’s outfitter friend, a few years before the 2000 election. “And so, when the Bush people came in, Jackson was told to shut up. They even issued him a written gag order.
“Someone told him to contact us, and he called from a pay phone booth,” Ruch laughed, “and from God knows where. And we saddled up to expose it.”
The idea sounds like something out of The X-Files, but then again it could be a scene from All the President’s Men.
“One night, I got out of the backcountry, after riding 32 miles, and it was dark,” Jackson said. “I got to my front country cabin and called my daughter, and she asked me if there was someone else on the line. It was one of those old-style phones, and it was like one of the old party lines where it’s not as distinct.
“Five minutes after hanging up, I got this call, and this guy with a gruff voice said, ‘Are you Bob Jackson?’
“I said, ‘Yes.’
“He said, ‘Your phone is tapped,’ and he hung up.
“With the politics of outfitter influence in and around Yellowstone—the Forest Service had pretty much capitulated for decades. Any field personnel writing tickets on those outfitters had those tickets ripped up at Jackson Hole Forest Service headquarters. When you had one major offense, if I caught a poacher, the other agencies were supposed to put that camp on probation. The second time, they were supposed to yank that outfitter’s permit. That was worth upwards of a million dollars per camp. But the state game wardens didn’t want to take away an outfitter’s permit because it was so political.
“The same for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the endangered species, with grizzly bears—they were supposed to start acting on any of those violations. They didn’t do it. They didn’t want to do it because politics meant they could lose their jobs.
“And so, the last decade I was there, I caused more problems for them than the economic benefits of me catching poachers.
“I got to finish my park service years in the same location I’d been all the time. It was the last season for my faithful, 15-year-old horse and me. That was part of my agreement. I bought this fine Fox Trotter from the government and put him out to pasture. I placed my custom-made saddle in the attic, where it still is today. My buffalo leather chaps, my White’s Packers, my shoeing equipment, my sawbuck pack saddles and panniers, my slicker, it’s all there.
“Usually, when you win a case like that, they at least transfer you over to some other place. They demoted my supervisor. They transferred rangers to the Forest Service, they forced early retirements just because Cheney didn’t like losing.”
In the end, though a Washington Post headline proclaimed, ‘Yellowstone Ranger Vindicated,’ Jackson was not awarded a pension for his 30 years of service.
To be continued. Part Three: Bison Family Values, and how Action Jackson’s idealism continues to be a thorn in Yellowstone’s side