A former Interior Department official in the Obama administration violated the law to benefit a family member affiliated with a global animal welfare group, the department’s inspector general said.
The results of the investigation showed that Richard Ruggiero, international conservation chief with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, violated federal ethics laws by participating in a federal cooperative agreement that financially benefited a family member.
Neither Ruggiero nor his family member “disclosed their relationship in writing” to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Ruggiero also shared confidential, “nonpublic” information about the agreement with his family member.
The agreement was with the nonprofit organization International Fund for Animal Welfare, of which Ruggiero’s family member was a member.
The inspector general said Ruggiero initially denied any participation in decisions related to the Fish and Wildlife Service cooperative agreement, “but he later admitted his involvement and that he should have recused himself from working on the agreement,” the investigation report said.
“One of Ruggiero’s senior employees knew that Ruggiero’s family member was involved with the agreement, and that Ruggiero authorized additional funding to the agreement,” the report showed.
The employee later approached the agency’s ethics office on behalf of Ruggiero, but failed to follow the guidance he received to have Ruggiero draft a recusal memorandum and submit it to the ethics office for review.
“In addition, other [agency] employees also knew about Ruggiero’s potential conflict of interest and did not report it to their supervisors or to the … Ethics Office,” the report stated. “We also found that Ruggiero was a decision maker on other grants awarded by the FWS with which his family member was involved, and that he did not report applicable income on his financial disclosure forms between 2012 and 2017.”
The results of the investigation were delivered to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which declined prosecution. A copy was also delivered to the acting Fish and Wildlife director to take “any action” it might deem appropriate, according to the inspector general.
The House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is equipped to address ethics violations, which are indicative of the public’s mistrust of Washington.
“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,” said committee spokeswoman Katie Schoettler. “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.”
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