A Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) employee was involved with signing off on a nearly $325,000 grant that funneled taxpayer money to a nonprofit that paid his wife thousands from the agreement, an Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation published Tuesday found.
Richard Ruggiero, a supervisor at FWS, admitted to being involved in the grant-creation process between his office and a nonprofit that financially benefitted his wife Heather Eves — actions that the internal government watchdog said violated federal ethics regulations and laws.
“We found that Ruggiero violated Federal laws and regulations by participating in an FWS cooperative agreement that financially benefited his wife, and neither Ruggiero nor his wife, Dr. Heather Eves, disclosed their relationship in writing to the FWS," the report read. "Ruggiero also shared nonpublic FWS information about the agreement with Eves."
According to the report, Ruggiero at first said he had not been part of the decisions related to the grant agreements but later admitted his involvement and said he should have recused himself. The watchdog found that other employees were also aware of the potential conflict of interest but failed to report it.
Ruggiero's division of FWS gave a grant to the nonprofit Internal Fund for Animal Welfare to establish a conservation training program nine days after he was chosen to lead the office. The $126,871 cooperative agreement to the nonprofit was later modified, resulting in a nearly three-year extension and a total grant of $324,108, the report found.
The watchdog additionally found that Ruggiero's wife was paid nearly $5,700 for her involvement with the training program. An additional nonprofit organization also agreed to contribute $14,400 to fund Eves's involvement as a teacher with the program, according to the report.
While the report specifically focused on grant money given to the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare, it also found that Ruggiero "was a decision maker" on a number of other grants awarded by FWS with which his wife was involved.
Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' MORE pointed to the findings in the report as an example of why he directed the department last year to undertake a review of its large grants and cooperative agreements.
"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.
"When I arrived last year, I asked for a briefing on our grants programs, and shockingly, not a single person could tell me definitively how much the Department disburses in grants every year and what projects we are funding. That's not because the people I asked are not smart, it's because the bureaucracy is so big and there's so little oversight. The previous administration created an environment that was so unaccountable that it led to bad actors taking advantage of taxpayers in plain sight."
A spokeswoman for the House Natural Resources Committee blamed the Obama administration for lacking oversight, saying that lack is what allowed Ruggiero to get away with the grant awards.
“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. "While this report signifies a serious lack of accountability of grants under the past administration, we believe Secretary Zinke is fully prepared to handle this matter."