FWS ‘slush fund’ exposed in Congressional hearings

Published January 1, 2000

“What the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t seem to understand is that Dingell-Johnson and Pittman-Robertson funds are for fish and wildlife conservation programs in the 50 states–not a slush fund for agency officials,” Don Young (R-Alaska) said as his House Resource Committee opened hearings into Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) mismanagement of those funds.

Under the Dingell-Johnson Act, which established the Sport Fish Restoration Program, and Pittman-Robertson, otherwise known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, FWS collects funds from excise taxes levied on fishing gear, guns, ammunition, and other hunting equipment. FWS, an agency of the Interior Department, administers the funds through its Office of Federal Aid.

By law, the funds are to be apportioned back to the states for conservation activities, such as wildlife and sport fish restoration. The two Acts intended for FWS to act merely as an agent to transfer funds back to the states, one congressional staffer told Environment News. FWS is permitted to withhold up to 6 percent of one fund, and up to 8 percent of the other, for administering the programs.

Since the Acts were passed, the agency’s actual administrative costs have averaged roughly 4 percent per year. But a 1999 General Accounting Office (GAO) audit discovered FWS was withholding the maximum 6 and 8 percent for administrative costs, then spending those funds in ways not authorized by the Acts.

GAO’s Associate Director of Energy, Resources and Science, Barry Hill, reported to the House Resource Committee in July that administrative funds were used for “many purposes, such as employee travel and special types of grants.”

Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho), chairman of the Forest and Forest Health Subcommittee said, “[I]t is fair to say that the common sportsman would be outraged to know that instead of going to the state to improve big game habitat, $677,674 of their hard-earned dollars were divvied up with about 140 Federal Aid employees in the form of ‘bonuses,’ and then $108,366 to personnel who do not even work for Federal Aid as ‘awards.’

“If an average American had mismanaged his own money and records like this, he would be facing an IRS audit and jail time,” she added. “The federal employees who are responsible for handling the taxpayers’ money should be held to at least the same standard of accountability.”

Summarizing the GAO report, Hill noted, “We believe that these problems have spawned a culture of permissive spending within the Office of Federal Aid.” He testified that FWS played “a shell game” with the funds and said “this is one of the worst managed programs we have encountered.” He also added that the “Office of Federal Aid is not adequately managing the program fund and has missed the opportunity to earn over $400,000 in interest income.”

The GAO also found that FWS had created its own unauthorized “administrative grants” programs for grants to outside groups, and that FWS Director Jamie Clark used some of the funds to create a “Director’s Conservation Fund” to give grants to federal, state, and other private groups. Since 1994, 35 grants worth $3.8 million have been awarded from Clark’s fund; the GAO reports the approval process was “open to subjective judgment.” (Since the GAO investigation, the FWS has terminated the “Director’s Conservation Fund.”)

A source close to the investigation noted that record keeping on FWS expenditures has been so poor that auditors have found it difficult to trace where the monies have gone. It is known that in fiscal year 1998, the excise tax programs collected $552 million, of which $31 million was used for administration and “unnamed projects.”

The July House Resource Committee hearings also determined that FWS funds its overhead costs not only with Congressional appropriations, but with “cost recovery from non-resource management accounts.” FWS “assesses” these accounts, such as the Office of Federal Aid, a fee to handle the tax money it by law is required to handle. That accounting trick netted FWS $4.6 million in FY 98. The money was used to fund over 75 unauthorized projects listed under the “Director’s Office of Projects and Initiatives.” Since 1990, are: wolf monitoring $159,000; RAMSAR Convention $145,000; the spotted owl $285,000; marine mammals $790,000; Atlantic salmon $429,000, retirement funding $570,000.

Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Donald Barry, has refused to testify before the committee, instead sending FWS Director Jamie Clark in July and claiming a schedule conflict with the September hearing. In September, the full Committee voted to subpoena Barry and require his appearance before the committee. The subpoena also seeks documents relevant to the alleged mismanagement of Interior Department funds administered by FWS. Voting with all committee Republicans was Representative Owen Pickett (D-Virginia), who told Environment News, “Every committee in Congress with oversight responsibility must have the ability to get the information it needs to carry out its oversight duties. This is particularly true where an entity such as GAO has provided alarming and disturbing testimony of intentional misconduct by federal government officials and the agency involved refuses to be forthcoming in its communications to the committee.”

Young noted that House Resources Committee investigators have identified over $45 million in administrative funds that have been improperly spent over the last six years. Representative Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) said, “Evidence of siphoning money from states and basic programs should be grounds for a major overhaul at the Fish and Wildlife Service.” Another hearing is expected, though it had not been scheduled at the this article was written. Interior assistant secretary Barry is expected to appear at that hearing.