Obama Interior Department Official Violated Ethics Laws

Published March 27, 2018

The Inspector General’s (IG) office of the U.S. Department of the Interior has issued a report stating a former Obama administration Interior Department official violated federal law to benefit a family member affiliated with a global animal welfare group.

The IG determined Richard Ruggiero, head of the Department of International Conservation (DIC) in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), violated federal ethics laws in shaping a cooperative agreement. The deal provided nearly $325,000 in funding to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), financially benefiting a family member who was an independent contractor with IFAW.

The IG report says before Ruggiero took over DIC, the department had signed a cooperative agreement with IFAW to establish a professional training program for conservation leaders overseas, allocating $126,871 to fund the program. Within nine days of Ruggiero becoming DIC chief, he initiated a series of modifications to the cooperative agreement extending the program for three years and increasing DIC’s grant to $324,108.

Denial, Lack of Disclosure

The IG discovered Ruggiero shared confidential “nonpublic” information about the agreement with his family member.

In addition, the report says, neither Ruggiero nor his family member “disclosed their relationship in writing” to the FWS as required by federal ethics laws, and Ruggiero initially denied any involvement when questioned about his participation in decisions related to the agreement. Later, Ruggiero admitted his part and acknowledged he should have recused himself from working on the deal.

Beyond Ruggiero’s wrongdoing, the IG report says several senior employees knew Ruggiero had a conflict of interest in his family member benefiting from the grant, yet they failed to report this fact to their supervisors or the Ethics Office as required by agency rules.

Additional Violations

The IG says the IFAW grant was not the only case where Ruggiero acted to benefit this family member.

“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 report stated.

After receiving the IG’s report, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to prosecute the case. The IG also sent the report to the acting FWS director, saying the document provided information on which FWS could take whatever action it deemed appropriate.

Review and Reform

Upon receiving the report, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released a press statement saying the Ruggiero case represents the type of malfeasance Zinke was concerned about when he directed Interior to review its large grants and cooperative agreements in 2017.

“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’s statement said. “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.

“The previous administration created an environment that was so unaccountable that it led to bad actors taking advantage of taxpayers in plain sight,” said Zinke.

‘Too Big to Manage’

Trey Kovacs, a policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says government employees’ frequent abuse of the grant system shows the need to reduce the size of federal agencies.

“When federal employees exploit their positions for personal enrichment, it is no wonder public trust in government is near an all-time low,” Kovacs said. “Federal employee corruption and abuse of the system occurs all too frequently.

“Reports like the one from the Department of Interior show the federal government has become too big to manage, which is why calls from the Trump administration to reorganize the government to make it smaller and more efficient are so crucial,” said Kovacs. “By shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, hopefully, instances of federal employees abusing their positions can be prevented.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.


Office of Inspector General, “FWS Supervisor Allegedly Violated Conflict of Interest Ethics Law,” U.S. Department of the Interior, February 20, 2018: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/fws-supervisor-allegedly-investigation-violated-conflict-of-interest-ethics-law