Fish and Wildlife Official Steered Work to Family Member, IG Finds

International conservation expert who violated ethics laws expressed regret.

The chief of international conservation at the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the law and ethics regulations when he issued a cooperative agreement and helped steer grants to nonprofits for which a family member worked, a watchdog found.

Richard Ruggiero, beginning in 2014, improperly shared nonpublic information with that family member and failed—along with colleagues—to disclose his relationship with the associate of the nonprofit that benefited from the three-year grants ultimately worth $324,108, according to a report posted Feb. 20 by the Interior Department’s inspector general.

“We found that Ruggiero violated federal laws and regulations by participating in an FWS cooperative agreement that financially benefited his family member, and neither Ruggiero nor his family member disclosed their relationship in writing to the FWS,” as the law requires, the IG wrote. “Ruggiero initially told us he did not participate in any decisions related to the agreement, but he later admitted his involvement and that he should have recused himself from working on the agreement.”

A senior employee working for Ruggiero, who was appointed in August 2014, knew about the unnamed family member’s involvement in the overseas training program run by the nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare, with which the family member contracted as a training instructor.

But, even after consulting an ethics officer, the colleagues did not follow up when Ruggiero continued his involvement in the cooperative agreement by adding modifications, the report said. An IFAW senior official said “he thought it was not the organization’s responsibility” to disclose the family member’s relationship with Ruggiero. The family member benefited from teaching stipends and travel expenses.

The auditors, who opened the probe after a tip, also uncovered lapses in Ruggiero’s financial disclosure forms in failing to report applicable income from 2012-17. “Ruggiero also allegedly participated in reviewing and approving funding requests for two previous grants to other nonprofit organizations with which his family member was affiliated,” the IG wrote.

Ruggiero’s training records indicated he completed ethics training in 2013 and 2014. Though Ruggiero approved a $30,000 modification of the cooperative award and communicated with staff on the project, “We found no evidence that Ruggiero was involved in the panel review process that selected the IFAW for the cooperative agreement,” auditors wrote.

Ruggiero told the IG he did not consult with the ethics office or recuse himself. He admitted he knew it was wrong to have approved the funding modification and to have engaged in communications about the agreement,” the report said. “He said he did not intend to violate any rules or improperly benefit himself or his family member from their involvement.” He said it was his responsibility to consult with the ethics office.

Federal prosecutors declined the case, so the IG recommended agency disciplinary action. 

“We are acting swiftly and decisively, without compromise, to address this situation, restore trust and ensure this sort of misconduct cannot and does not happen again,” FWS spokesman Gavin Shire said in an email to Government Executive. “While this issue is under review, we will adhere strictly to the established processes and federal guidelines that ensure we respect the rights of the employee concerned.”

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