SALT LAKE CITY — A two-year internal investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has turned up evidence of improper billing for costs incurred by wildland fires.
According to Juan Palma, director of the BLM's Utah state office, employees in the BLM's West Desert district office sometimes improperly charged fire-related expenses to insurance companies, railroads and even the state of Utah.
Labeling it a "program review" rather than an audit, Palma confirmed that the investigation is continuing. He said he doesn't believe anyone personally profited from the practices and is unaware of any criminal investigation.
"No, this is not about personal gain," Palma said. "This is really about where it was appropriate to charge it."
The improper billing resulted from the fact that different aspects of the agency's firefighting role are budgeted in different ways. Purchases for supplies and replacement items, such as truck parts, hoses and shovels are sometimes paid for with federal funds dedicated to preparations for an upcoming fire season. Once wildfires start rampaging, though, such items might be paid for with funds in a separate account dedicated to fire suppression.
Those suppression costs are sometimes reimbursed by outside parties, depending on the location and cause of the fire.
"If it is a human reason that the fire started," Palma said, "then those fires are charged to either the insurance company (or) it could be, an example, the railroad" that started the fire.
In cases where the BLM fights a fire on state land, the state of Utah reimburses some costs.
Two years ago, a routine review turned up irregularities and triggered the deeper probe. At no time did it find evidence of BLM employees enriching themselves, Palma said. "All of the purchases that occurred was to benefit, really, the government. But no individual per se."
The BLM's West Desert district manager, Glenn Carpenter, retired at the end of the year and was unavailable for comment Wednesday. The agency won't say if his departure was related to the ongoing probe. His temporary replacement is Kevin Oliver who moved to Utah from a BLM position in southern Nevada.
"Glenn Carpenter willingly retired," Oliver said. "That was his choice. He chose to retire."
Palma would not rule out future staff changes as a result of the continuing investigation. He would not provide specific information about improper charges or any estimate of the the amount of money involved.
"I haven't added it all up," Palma said, "but I don't think it would add to something really significant. It's just that we need to make sure that we charge appropriately."
Palma said he doesn't believe the improper charges were done deliberately but resulted from sloppy paperwork, often done under emergency conditions during wildfire season.
The BLM has already undertaken a number of steps to reform procedures. According to BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny, all improper charges have been corrected.