Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, June 8, 2016
A top Fish and Wildlife Service official appears to have violated federal law by working a side job as treasurer of a state wildlife regulators group that works closely with the agency, according to the Interior Department watchdog.
Stephen Barton, the service’s former chief of administration and information management for wildlife and sport fish restoration, repeatedly failed to disclose that the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) paid him more than $375,000 over seven years for his services — another potentially criminal act, the Office of Inspector General said in a report released yesterday.
The report also suggests Barton may have broken at least one more federal law and violated nine regulations intended to prevent misuse of government resources and conflicts of interest.
Barton told investigators he began working part time as WAFWA’s treasurer in 2004. But he kept that position when he was hired by FWS in September 2007, even though federal law says it is a violation to receive any compensation for outside work as an employee of the executive branch.
Barton’s FWS supervisor, Hannibal Bolton, the assistant director of the wildlife and sport fish restoration division, was aware of Barton’s second job as far back as January 2009, according to a document from Bolton provided to investigators by an FWS ethics official. That agreement granted Barton approval to continue working for WAFWA.
At WAFWA, Barton compiled audits of the association. At Fish and Wildlife, he advocated for exempting WAFWA from auditing requirements.
For example, in a July 10, 2014, email to a wildlife and sport fish restoration division chief, Barton wrote that “per our discussion yesterday, here’s my explanation on how and why you can give WAFWA a waiver. … The decision is yours, if you believe the circumstances warrant the waiver, the RD [Regional Director] (or you if that’s in your delegated authority which [I] suspect it is) can approve their request.”
The same month, he also contacted an Interior attorney for legal advice on whether Fish and Wildlife could grant WAFWA a one-year exception from some auditing requirements.
Barton’s conflicting roles seem to have been well-known at Fish and Wildlife. A wildlife and sport fish restoration division chief indicated to investigators that “everyone had been aware that Barton was the WAFWA treasurer and that more than one person had commented that it had to have been problematic,” the report says.
But Barton — who made $155,000 a year working for Fish and Wildlife — concealed his outside compensation from the agency, the report says.
After Bolton expressed concerns in a December 2010 memo about the ongoing work with WAFWA, Barton filed a Request for Ethics Approval to Engage in Outside Work or Activity form. In that filing, he claimed WAFWA wasn’t paying him, that he worked around 10 hours per week for the association and that he would submit a revised request if his responsibilities increased.
But Barton’s subsequent annual filings for the Office of Government Ethics didn’t list his work for WAFWA or any income from the association. He explained to the OIG that he didn’t think to list the positions because he “didn’t have time.”
He also described to investigators his outside income — which tripled from $34,998.47 in 2008 to $109,242.74 in 2013, his last full year with WAFWA — as “minor” and “insignificant.”
Barton hired his daughter to work at WAFWA, as well. A finance official at the association said she had “no accounting experience” and told the OIG that “she had been planning to terminate Barton’s daughter due to the organization restructuring and her lack of required experience.”
Examining both WAFWA and FWS payroll records, the OIG found that Barton had billed both his employers on multiple occasions. For instance, on July 23, 2012, at the WAFWA summer meeting in Hawaii, he claimed to have worked 12.75 hours for the association and eight for the agency — more than 20 hours in one day.
Barton didn’t deny billing his hours at WAFWA’s biennial conferences, but he told investigators that at times the two jobs just “merged together.”
His supervisor, Bolton, told the OIG that he thought Barton had resigned from WAFWA after his 2010 memo. But the ethics official said he had “acknowledged the position when Bolton signed the related paperwork.”
Bolton also approved $96,087 worth of travel to Boise, Idaho, where WAFWA’s headquarters are and Barton’s wife lives, even though his Fish and Wildlife job is based in the Washington, D.C., area. Barton also collected federal per-diem payments on several weekends in 2014 when he was not doing work for the agency.
The Barton report was prompted by another ongoing investigation, OIG spokeswoman Nancy DiPaolo said.
Fraudster leaves FWS, supervisor is reassigned
The service declined to comment on how the revelations could affect its working relationship with WAFWA, which has been strained by litigation over the Endangered Species Act status of the lesser prairie chicken. WAFWA, which has a rangewide plan in place to recover the bird, opposed its inclusion on the threatened species list — a decision that was ultimately rejected by Judge Robert Junell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
The agency thanked the OIG for its “thorough investigation,” a spokesman said in a written statement.
The spokesman added that “given the gravity of the issues raised, the Service has taken appropriate steps to address problems identified in the Report. The subject of the OIG’s investigation is no longer employed with the Service.”
Bolton is still with the agency but is no longer in a supervisory role, the FWS spokesman said in an interview.
Meanwhile, a WAFWA representative called the OIG report’s revelations “shocking.”
“Mr. Barton was engaged as an independent contractor to WAFWA prior to him joining the Fish & Wildlife Service, and WAFWA had the understanding that his continued work for WAFWA after he joined FWS was authorized by the agency,” Richard Arnhold, a member of the law firm Bass, Berry and Sims, said in an email. “WAFWA was not previously aware of a number of facts revealed in the report, including that Mr. Barton had falsely certified to FWS that he was not receiving any compensation from WAFWA.”
The association’s lawyer also expressed confidence that “its strong, decades-long working relationship with FWS” would continue. “It is extremely unfortunate that both WAFWA and FWS have been negatively affected by the actions of a single individual,” Arnhold wrote.