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Policy: Environment & Energy

Audit rips Obama climate science program for money blunders

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Ron Arnold,Op-Eds,Environment,Interior,Federal Budget,Climate Change,Corruption,Analysis,Energy and Environment,Global Warming

Last week's release of a scathing 53-page audit report by the Interior Department's top cop has opened up another Obama climate-change snake pit nobody's ever heard of: Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

The Office of the Inspector General opened the books on the labyrinthine LCCs, which were created by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a 2009 secretarial order as part of President Obama's Climate Change Program and funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The OIG came away aghast.

"We found areas of concern that place millions of dollars at risk. These findings may raise public concern, which could impact support for this valuable work," wrote Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, acting inspector general and author of the audit report.

What is this "valuable work"? There are 22 LCCs scattered nationwide and in several international jurisdictions, all with the chief function of distributing FWS dollars as discretionary grants and cooperative agreements to "encourage science-based inquiries to respond to landscape-level stressors, including climate change." FWS set aside $88.3 million to support LCCs at startup and continues with additional funding.

In short, LCCs funnel taxpayer money to a network of third-party climate researchers — universities, organizations and private firms — to study huge areas beyond the scope of any one agency or organization.

Mary Kendall and her team have antagonized the House Committee on Natural Resources by "not pursuing investigations involving political appointees or Administration priorities," and "not issuing reports to Congress and the public."

Notably, even though Kendall's audit report comes down hard on shortcomings in "fair and open competition" and "questionable relationships between the cooperatives and grant recipients," it is silent on the quality of the climate science work product.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this report is its focus on a Big Green organization engaged to coordinate between Fish & Wildlife and the LCCs, and to administer the grants and contracts given to recipients that the LCCs select: the Wildlife Management Institute ($2.5 million 2012 income).

WMI is a scientific and educational nonprofit group founded in 1911 by well-heeled hunters and anglers who promoted protections to restore dwindling fish and game populations.

In 1946, WMI began a tradition by hiring Ira Gabrielson, retiring director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as its president. Many WMI presidents since then came straight from the FWS director's chair.

WMI's presidency became known as the FWS's early retirement double-dipper golden parachute, with current presidential compensation in the $265,000 range.

It should come as no surprise, then, that FWS awarded a $2 million cooperative agreement without competition to WMI for scientific advice and to administer the North Atlantic and Appalachian LCC's grants to third parties.

Somehow, this glaring favoritism was not put before FWS director Dan Ashe by Kendall's investigators -- or included in the report's 15 recommendations for improvement.

However, even if the FWS were to break off this incestuous affair, WMI is also funded by vastly wealthy and uber-connected Big Green foundations such as the Hewlett Foundation ($7.3 billion 2011 assets), which gave WMI a $485,000 grant for "support of the sportsmen advisory group on climate change." (Note how Hewlett grant priorities match Interior Department priorities.)

The OIG audit report complained that WMI administered six funding opportunities offered by the Appalachian LCC, none of which were posted on Grants.gov.

As a result, there was no public competition, chalked up to inadequate grant management training for LCC personnel. The OIG also questioned WMI's imposition of a 10 percent surcharge on the grants it administered, in the total amount of $182,947. FWS is now working to determine whether payback is required.

A congressional source said committee hearings on Landscape Conservation Cooperatives can be expected.

Washington Examiner columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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