FWS official approved grants that benefited family member — IG

By Michael Doyle | 02/21/2018 01:01 PM EST

A top Fish and Wildlife Service official “violated federal laws and regulations” by participating in a grant agreement that financially benefited a “family member,” Interior Department investigators say.

Department of Interior Headquarters in Washington.

Department of Interior Headquarters in Washington. Pamela King/E&E News

A top Fish and Wildlife Service official "violated federal laws and regulations" by participating in a grant agreement that financially benefited a "family member," Interior Department investigators say.

In a stinging new report, Interior’s Office of Inspector General criticized the actions of Richard Ruggiero, chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation.

Tipped off by a whistleblower, the IG investigators found that Ruggiero oversaw the Division of International Conservation while it provided several hundred thousand dollars to the International Fund for Animal Welfare at the same time as Ruggiero’s family member was paid for teaching by the private group.

Richard Ruggiero. Photo credit: Fish and Wildlife Service
Richard Ruggiero. | Fish and Wildlife Service

"Neither Ruggiero nor his family member disclosed their relationship in writing to the FWS," the 10-page IG report states, adding that "Ruggiero also shared nonpublic FWS information about the agreement with his family member."

The public version of the report does not name the family member. The House Natural Resources Committee, which obtained an unredacted version, identified the family member as Ruggiero’s "wife, Dr. Heather Eves."

The investigation led to Ruggiero being placed on administrative leave, according to FWS, and prompted a sharp reaction from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

"This Inspector General report identified exactly the kind of mismanagement and tax dollar abuse I have been concerned about and I am looking to root out at Interior," Zinke said in a statement yesterday, adding that "the previous administration created an environment that was so unaccountable that it led to bad actors taking advantage of taxpayers in plain sight."

FWS spokesman Gavin Shire added that "we are acting swiftly and decisively, without compromise, to address this situation, restore trust and ensure this sort of misconduct cannot and does not happen again."

The new steps include bringing in a senior executive to review how the agency’s international grants are handled and imposing a requirement that future international grants get reviewed by the agency’s director.

At the same time, Shire said that "while this issue is under review, we will adhere strictly to the established processes and federal guidelines that ensure we respect the rights of the employee concerned."

The Division of International Conservation is part of FWS’s International Affairs Program. It helps fund efforts to aid species including elephants, great apes, marine turtles and tigers.

Ruggiero earned a Ph.D., with a dissertation on the African elephant, and has many years of experience both in Africa and with FWS, according to his official biography.

The division issued an initial $126,871 cooperative agreement to the IFAW to establish a training program for conservation leaders overseas on Aug. 20, 2014, nine days after Ruggiero became chief. The cooperative agreement was later modified five times, resulting in a total award of $324,108, investigators found.

Ruggiero’s family member was paid $5,684.29 for involvement with the training program.

Investigators said they "found no evidence that Ruggiero was involved" in the initial funding process but said he "later admitted to approving the September 2015 modification, communicating with his staff about the agreement, and sending his family member an email that contained nonpublic information about the agreement."

"Ruggiero initially told us he did not participate in any decisions related to the agreement, but he later admitted his involvement and that he should have recused himself from working on the agreement," the report states.

Ruggiero did not notify anyone at FWS that his family member was an active participant in the training program, explaining to investigators that he "thought that most employees in his division already knew about the relationship."

"He said, in hindsight, that he should have properly consulted with the FWS Ethics Office and documented the potential conflict," the IG report stated.

Ruggiero also told investigators that, after travel and other expenses were accounted for, "he believed that his family member lost money from her involvement in the agreement rather than received a net benefit."

The IG presented the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which declined prosecution.