Two Maryland lawmakers have called for an independent review of the state Department of Natural Resources’ handling of repeated complaints into longtime manager Michael J. Browning at Gunpowder Falls State Park.
A Baltimore County grand jury indicted the former manager of Gunpowder Falls State Park on Monday on charges that include rape and assault, according to online court records.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth and Del. Eric Luedtke cited their “horror” in the “systemic abuse of employees that has been allowed to take place, unchecked” at Gunpowder Falls State Park in a letter to Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Maryland’s secretary of natural resources.
“[T]he behavior and lack of accountability described is inexcusable and requires prompt action by the Department to address the issues raised and ensure that a similar situation never happens again,” the letter states.
Baltimore County Police arrested Michael Browning, 71, in September and charged him with sexually assaulting a former park employee. According to charging documents, the woman told police she met Browning as a teenager while attending a youth club his wife ran before working with Browning at Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Police wrote in charging documents that the two had a yearslong consensual relationship and that he helped her move into park housing in White Marsh. The woman told police that she tried to end the relationship and that Browning raped her 10 to 15 times, charging documents said.
A grand jury indicted Browning on Monday on charges related to alleged attacks on that woman, now in her 20s, and a second woman.
Browning’s attorney, Gary Bernstein, said his client, who remains in jail, denies all the charges and was “stunned” to hear about the second victim.
“I thought his head was gonna explode when I told him about the second victim. I really thought he was going to have a heart attack,” Bernstein said. “I had to explain it to him more than once.”
Browning worked for the park service for 45 years and surrendered his gun after he was arrested, Bernstein said in September.
Gregg Bortz, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, declined to say how many years Browning had worked for the park service or whether he was still an employee.
Bortz said in a statement Thursday evening that the agency was being careful not to interfere with the Baltimore County Police Department’s criminal investigation.
“While we cannot discuss specifics, the department assures the public and our employees that we are taking every appropriate step and personnel action within the parameters of the law, including the Police Accountability Act,” Bortz said in the statement. “With respect to the internal, administrative investigations related to any employee misconduct, we again encourage employees or others with information to reach out to our Human Resource Services.”
A Baltimore Banner article published last week reported that there were repeated employee complaints regarding Browning’s alleged misconduct over the years, which the lawmakers cited in their letter when calling for the investigation.
Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, and Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, called on the agency to seek an independent review by either the Department of Budget and Management or the Office of the Attorney General.
“It is clear that the Maryland Park Service is in dire need of system-wide reforms to ensure that such predatory behavior is never allowed to occur again,” they wrote, saying that public trust in the parks system has been “profoundly undermined.”
They described the potential damage inflicted on park employees as “immeasurable” and want those who played a hand in the abuse and allowed it to continue, whether actively abetting or through inaction, be terminated and referred to law enforcement.