High-ranking Park Service official pleads guilty to travel fraud

A top law enforcement official at the National Park Service pleaded guilty last week to a misdemeanor charge of stealing public money. Patricia Buccello, 55, was the agency's senior internal investigator and had nearly 30 years of service. She entered a statement of offense in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Oct. 31, resigned from her position and agreed not to seek a job in law enforcement in the future.

Buccello, as a senior official in a supervisory role, hadn't been directly involved in investigations for several years, said Kathy Kupper, a Park Service spokeswoman. "There's no evidence at this time that any investigations were compromised," she said.

As the agency's national special agent in charge, Buccello was responsible for managing all the finance accounts for Park Service special agents. She admitted to misusing a government credit card and to fraudulently billing Carlson Wagonlit, a travel agency, for airline tickets for nine personal trips between her duty station in Washington and Maine, where she also maintained a home.

She also misspent money on nonrefundable tickets that were never used or exchanged, and voluntarily missed flights related to official duties -- once in order to obtain free round-trip airline tickets. She then lied about the missed flights to colleagues.

The investigation into Buccello's actions began last April, when the inspector general at the Interior Department -- the Park Service's parent agency -- received a complaint that Buccello failed to perform assigned duties in order to obtain a free round-trip airline ticket.

According to a statement Buccello submitted to the court, in March she flew to Charlotte, N.C., where she was scheduled to take a connecting flight to Jacksonville, Fla., to attend a ceremony honoring fallen Park Service officers. She voluntarily gave up her seat on the connecting flight in exchange for a free ticket, but told colleagues her flight had been canceled.

In July 2006, she was scheduled to travel to St. Louis, Mo., to deliver a fatality report to the widow of a fallen Park Service officer. Her itinerary was to take her from Rockland, Maine, to Boston to Charlotte and finally to St. Louis. But Buccello missed her scheduled flight to Boston and took a later flight, which arrived too late for the connecting flight to Charlotte. She flew to Washington instead, and called the widow to say that she was "stuck on the tarmac and would not make it to St. Louis."

In a joint statement, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor and Interior Inspector General Earl E. Devaney said Buccello had blanket travel authorization by virtue of her position, and that her abuse of that position between April 2005 and March 2007 resulted in a loss to taxpayers of $10,864.95.

Buccello will be sentenced in early January. She faces up to six months in prison.

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