High Noon in Homestead

On Friday, August 1, Everglades National Park administrators were gearing up for a big meeting to be held the next week. This was an annual event involving the top brass -- a brainstorming, looking-ahead session, a sort of "State of the Park" conference. But given the national park's precarious financial situation, this year's conclave promised a full agenda of urgent needs to be addressed. Then around noon came the call that brought everything to an abrupt halt: Park superintendent Maureen Finnerty had been arrested, jailed, and charged with DUI.

Finnerty spent what surely was an uncomfortable Friday night locked up in the county's Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in west Miami-Dade. Her second-in-command, deputy superintendent John Benjamin (now acting superintendent), bailed her out the next day. Lt. Tom Foglia of the Homestead Police Department, where Finnerty was initially held, explains why she was transferred to the county facility instead of being charged and released from his department's custody: "We kept her in Homestead for six hours, but she was still too drunk to release, so we had to send her to TGK."

Details of the incident are sordid enough -- the police report reads like an afterschool movie script meant to scare youngsters away from alcohol -- but it couldn't have come at a worse time for the beleaguered park. Now it's possible there will be an administrative shakeup following an investigation by the Department of the Interior, surely a blow to morale as park personnel struggle to keep crumbling facilities functional on a too-tight budget.

It's unclear why Finnerty was in Homestead on a Friday she had taken off from work (she lives in Kendall), but police reports and eyewitnesses provide this account: At about noon the 57-year-old park superintendent pulled her '96 Honda Accord into a Mobil gas station and convenience store at 1781 NE Eighth St. in Homestead. In the process she hit a trash can and a concrete curb protecting the gas pumps.

As she was attempting to drive away after the collision, the Mobil manager, Luayy Abuqara, ran from the store, confronted Finnerty, and immediately realized she was inebriated. He opened the driver's-side door and removed her car keys from the ignition. Then he called police.

Abuqara declined comment, but the police report states: "I asked the defendant for her license and she fumbled with a bag and could not find her license. The defendant had a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage on her breath and her speech was extremely slurred and mumbled. I asked the defendant to exit her vehicle and she fell out of her seat and then grabbed onto the door. The defendant then hung onto the open door. I asked the defendant to walk to the rear of her vehicle and she could not walk normally without being assisted. The defendant nearly fell to the ground.... There was a cup of an unknown type alcoholic beverage in the center console of the vehicle that had spilled as a result of the crash."

One witness said Finnerty drank from the cup even as police were on their way to the scene, which may explain why her Breathalyzer results rocketed to a startling .308 and .296, readings so high that Homestead PD summoned paramedics. (Florida's legal limit is .08.) Says Lieutenant Foglia: "A .4 blood-alcohol level is life-threatening. If you're over the .3 threshold we usually call for medical attention." Paramedics checked Finnerty as she was being held at Homestead police headquarters and determined she wasn't in serious danger. Later she was transported to the county jail.

Park spokesman Rick Cook says Finnerty, who earns $140,000 per year, has been a popular administrator who improved sagging spirits among the park's 230 employees. She showed no signs of having an alcohol problem, according to Cook, and was well respected by Department of the Interior officials, as evidenced by her prestigious post: At 1.5 million acres, Everglades is the biggest national park east of the Rockies, and considered to be one of the system's crown jewels. Last year it hosted 1.1 million visitors.

Finnerty's 30 years with the park service include a stint as assistant superintendent of Everglades National Park in 1983, superintendent of Olympic National Park in Washington state from 1990 to 1994, and numerous other administrative posts. She returned to Homestead in 2001 after six years as associate director for park operations at National Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., a lofty position she could hardly have attained had she made a habit of guzzling booze for breakfast.

The reason for Finnerty's behavior is still unknown (she didn't respond to interview requests), as is the possible fallout for Everglades National Park. Investigators from the Department of the Interior have been spotted at the Homestead Police Department and the Mobil gas station asking about the circumstances surrounding Finnerty's arrest. Two items that may factor into their conclusions: Finnerty took a personal-leave day on the Friday in question, so she wasn't drinking on the job; nor was she in uniform when she was arrested.

Cook says there is no specific protocol regarding an incident like this. "She's on administrative leave with pay," he reports. "I don't know what will happen ultimately, although had this been done while she was on duty, the repercussions would have been very clear."

Meanwhile acting superintendent John Benjamin will shoulder the task of overseeing a park with a budget of $13.5 million that Finnerty has said is about $10 million too little. "Most of the infrastructure here is from the Fifties and Sixties," Cook notes, "and this is a tough climate at best." In addition to replacing decrepit buildings, Everglades National Park needs to update an aging radio system, clear overgrown trails, and fill 47 full-time positions, including rangers who deal directly with the paying public.

The problems are systemic. In 1998 the federal General Accounting Office described a $4.9 billion maintenance and construction backlog among the national parks; some estimates now put that figure at $6.8 billion. President George W. Bush, who campaigned as a champion of national parks, last month unveiled a five-year plan that would pump billions into the system, but critics say it will add only $371 million annually to the existing budget for parks repairs.


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