- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A top official in the Obama administration’s Interior Department helped facilitate payments of thousands of dollars in federal money to a family member, the department’s inspector general said in a report late Tuesday that found clear abuse of the office’s grant policies.

The inspector general said Richard Ruggiero, who served as international conservation chief with the Fish and Wildlife Service, helped set up a $126,781 cooperative agreement with the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare. The agreement was aimed at helping to “establish a professional training program for conservation leaders overseas.”

It was put in place on Aug. 20, 2014 — nine days after Mr. Ruggiero’s appointment to his post.

The agreement was later extended, and a total of $324,108 was paid out.

Of that, $5,684.29 for training went to a family member of Mr. Ruggiero. Investigators said he did not initially disclose the fact that the agreement would benefit a family member, who appears to have been his wife.

“Ruggiero admitted that he did not recuse himself from the cooperative agreement, despite having had several reminders and opportunities to do so throughout the agreement’s period of performance,” the inspector general said in a report.

“He admitted he knew it was wrong to have approved the funding modification and to have engaged in communications about the agreement. He said he did not intend to violate any rules or improperly benefit himself or his family member from their involvement. Ruggiero said it was a mistake that he did not recuse himself and that it was his responsibility to consult with the ethics office directly, regardless of his senior employee’s assurances,” the IG wrote.

Republicans on Capitol Hill say the incident underscores why many Americans don’t trust the government.

“When federal employees misuse their positions for personal gain in cases like this, it’s no wonder the public has lost trust in our institutions of government,” said Katie Schoettler, spokesperson for the House Committee on Natural Resources. “While this report signifies a serious lack of accountability of grants under the past administration, we believe [Interior] Secretary [Ryan] Zinke is fully prepared to handle this matter. We look forward to continuing our work with Secretary Zinke to improve oversight and accountability at the Department to better serve the American people.”

The inspector general said the case was referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia, which declined to prosecute.

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