SALT LAKE CITY — An investigation into fraud and abuse involving federal wildfire funds in Utah has spread to several states, according to testimony before a congressional committee in Washington.
"It is in many respects a failure in leadership, a failure in management oversight," said Michael Pool, deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
"We're talking about pockets of irregularities and misuse," Pool said in testimony before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
His appearance followed the revelation earlier this week of a strongly worded email in which Pool called the situation "ugly and serious." He sent the email to BLM directors in several states, including Utah, urging them to crack down on misuse of tax money budgeted for fighting wildfires.
In that email, first reported by KSL-TV and the Deseret News, Pool wrote, "This appears to be culturally rampant throughout the fire community — scamming the system with no managerial oversight and detection systems in place."
Questioning Pool about the email, subcommittee Chairman and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said, "It has come to my attention through the media that there are signs of abuse and fraud and failure of leadership in certain areas of the BLM."
Pool did not disagree or distance himself from the email. He confirmed that financial irregularities were found in the firefighting program two years ago, triggering an ongoing investigation.
"As a result of this ongoing investigation," Pool said, "we're discovering other irregularities and misuse of federal appropriations."
Two BLM employees in Utah pleaded guilty last year to charges of theft and embezzlement of government property. Prosecutors say Justin Johnson and Michael Dale Turner misused government credit cards as well as retail gift cards that are sometimes issued to employees as a reward for exemplary service. A federal judge ordered Johnson to pay restitution of $10,000 to the federal government. Turner was ordered to repay $4,139.
The email also said problems were found in the way BLM personnel reported the time they spent fighting wildfires. Agency officials in Utah also told KSL and the Deseret News that employees improperly charged insurance companies, railroads and the state of Utah for firefighting expenses.
Pool told the subcommittee he cannot estimate how much tax money is involved overall. "For those that misuse or, in some cases, abuse these financial authorities, we are taking appropriate disciplinary action," he testified. "Most importantly, we want to restore the integrity and management oversight in managing these finances in our fire operations."
He said the investigation detected pockets of financial irregularities in Utah. "We had a situation develop more recently in Idaho," Pool said. "We've had some smaller detects in other states. But we're seeing similarity in the type of misuse. And that was my concern and probably accounted for my commentary as far as the rampant nature of this. And our goal is to eliminate it. And soon."
Bishop complimented Pool for the "open and candid" approach he took in his testimony. Bishop asked Pool to give the subcommittee a more detailed briefing at a later date.