A climate science program created by the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service lacks key taxpayer protections, leaving it ripe for favoritism and misspending, an internal investigation has found.
Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said an audit of spending by managers of the department's landscape conservation cooperatives found problems that officials have previously examined but have yet to correct.
"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," she said.
Those problems included the lack of public notice of grant availability, "questionable relationships" between coordinators of the cooperatives and grant recipients, and undocumented reimbursed costs.
The cooperatives were initiated by former Secretary Ken Salazar in 2009 as the department's response to the impacts of climate change on local and regional conservation efforts. A total of 22 cooperatives were created nationally, including 15 in the continental United States.
About $88 million was budgeted for the cooperatives in fiscal 2010 and 2011 for staff and to fund applied science projects through the federal government, states, tribes, universities and nonprofit groups.
In prepared remarks to the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2011, Salazar said the cooperatives and associated climate science centers were intended to "better equip land and resource managers with the tools they need to effectively conserve resources in a rapidly changing environment."
Kendall cautioned that her audit did not examine the quality of the science advanced by the cooperatives, though she praised the program as a valuable approach to broad-scale climate challenges to land and water conservation efforts.
Kendall noted her office and the department's own management review of the program had previously found some of the same problems detailed in her report.
"The issues we identified during our audit regarding FWS grant management are not new," Kendall said. "Historically we have found grant management to be an area of concern, particularly with FWS grant processes."
She said the regional cooperatives have adequate staff but lack experience and training. Of 36 grant awards reviewed by auditors, only two met public notification and competition requirements set by the department and the Office of Management and Budget.
Kendall made 15 recommendations to improve the program or address problems uncovered by the audit, and said the department was to implement changes and corrective actions.
Department officials had no additional comment.