By By James J. Baker
Citizen anger over government abuse of taxes was the catalyst that ignited the American Revolution, and good-natured grousing about how our government spends tax dollars has been a traditional part of our history ever since.
Seldom have citizens enthusiastically supported a tax of any type, but the excise taxes collected from hunters and fishermen under two laws set up to enhance the populations and habitats of game animal and sport fish species have been a remarkable success story in wildlife conservation. Beginning in 1937, hunters and shooters have willingly paid excise taxes of 10 and 11 percent on new firearms and ammunition, confident in the knowledge that the funds would be spent directly on wildlife and habitat conservation.
That was before Bill Clinton and Al Gore came to the White House and fast outpaced all other previous presidential administrations combined in their attacking the rights of gun owners and hunters. Now, this White House has "spawned a culture of permissive spending" of tax dollars supposedly earmarked to serve the outdoorsmen who pay those revenues, according to one General Accounting Office (GAO) investigator who recently testified before Congress.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has misappropriated at least $45 million in excise tax funds set aside for game conservation, turning the special accounts into cash cows for pet projects of the Clinton-Gore Administration.
According to a GAO report and at House Resources Committee hearings, this latest funding scandal is a Clintonesque twist on another type of "wildlife," with conservation tax dollars paying for trips to Brazil, Holland, and Japan, and reimbursement for lavish meals, liquor, and limousine rentals.
In at least one instance, pressure was applied to an employee of the FWS to fund a grant proposal submitted by a zealous animal-rights group, The Fund for Animals, which is dedicated to the elimination of the very hunting heritage that those monies are collected to support.
The top land-acquisition priority for the FWS for fiscal 1999, according to Service spokeswoman Barbara Maxfield, was the purchase of an island to be set aside as a national wildlife refuge. The Clinton-Gore Administration proposed using $30 million in Duck Stamp fees and hunting excise tax revenues to buy Palmyra Atoll, located 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, populated by 10 ducks.
That's right, 10 ducks. The administration wanted to devote an enormous sum of hunters' dollars to buy an island virtually no one could reach, where hunting is banned, to help 10 ducks.
"While I value birds as much as anyone, $3 million a duck seems high," quipped U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), an NRA Board Member and avid hunter who chairs the House Resources Committee, which has held hearings to focus public scrutiny on the Clinton-Gore Administration's betrayal of not only hunters, but also of our national wildlife resources.
"I'm appalled that the Clinton Administration would dedicate $30 million to buy a tropical island instead of funding vital conservation programs in our 50 states," said Young, who said the FWS has broken the law by using money mandated for wildlife conservation to set up a "slush fund" for ineligible projects that were nonetheless favored by the White House.
Congressman Don Young(R-AK) has held three hearings into abuses of the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson trust funds. He also introduced legislation, backed by the NRA, to specify exactly how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may and may not spend the excise tax revenues.
That $30 million deal was derailed, due in large part to hearings held by Young's committee. It also prompted outrage from senior Democrats, including U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan. Dingell wrote a sharply worded letter to Secretary Bruce Babbitt of the Department of Interior, which includes the FWS. Dingell, who co-sponsored the Sport Fishing Restoration Act -- also known as the Dingell-Johnson Act -- told Babbitt that he and other Democrats would "vigorously oppose" the purchase. Babbitt scrapped the purchase.
Dingell-Johnson and the Wildlife Restoration Act, better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, both passed several decades ago with the vigorous support of most advocates of the shooting and fishing sports, including NRA. The laws established excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment -- everything from shotgun shells, game bags, and compound bows to lures, tackle boxes, and boat fuel.
Both laws mandate that revenues generated by these sales be returned to state and local fish and game organizations, both public and private, for programs to manage sport fish and game animal species.
The FWS, which collects and dispenses the tax dollars through various grants, is allowed under the laws to deduct only the cost of administering the programs. Administrative costs are limited to eight percent of the excise taxes collected from anglers and six percent of the special revenues paid by hunters.
The scandal came to light largely through the efforts of one man, James M. Beers, a wildlife biologist and career civil servant with 30 years of experience who was forced into retirement after he refused to approve grants from Pittman-Robertson tax revenues to applicants who were clearly ineligible, such as the anti-hunting group The Fund for Animals.
"Hunting is a cowardly act . . . and it does brave men and women no credit. If they would truly think like the animal, hunters would realize this very quickly."
Norm Phelps, Program Coordinator, The Fund for Animals
After Clinton and Gore took office, "I began to see indications of FWS developing duplicity" on the issue of trapping, Beers recalls. The European Community had threatened to ban all fur imports from the U.S. if the federal government did not set up restrictions for leg-hold traps.
Beers was tasked to set up new trapping standards to satisfy the European markets, "a difficult challenge, but one that was worthwhile ... for the trappers, furriers, and even hunters and fishermen who were also threatened by the animal-rights activists who were driving the European fur ban," he testified to Young's committee.
At the same time the Clinton-Gore Administration was assuring state game agencies, trappers, and furriers of support, Beers testified that he was hearing from longtime colleagues about "secret meetings between FWS and animal-rights representatives to ... undercut our efforts." When he questioned his bosses about these unofficial reports, Beers says he was "greeted only with smiles" and denials.
Beers also reviewed grant applications from state governments and private groups for Pittman-Robertson funds. He was designated project officer for 90 percent of the approved projects. He told Young's committee that in 1997 he began to get applications from various groups, including The Fund for Animals, that "wanted to put together and distribute anti-hunting literature" in public schools and other public venues.
Beers refused to approve such grant applications, based on their failure to meet guidelines set forth in the Federal Register. "I was badgered and intimidated to change that finding," he remembers. "On one occasion, I told a manager to fund it if he wanted to, (that) I would not change my recommendation as the regulations required."
A few months later, "I was curtly told I would be moved to a nonexistent, lower-grade job in Massachusetts... . I was locked out of my office, the police came to the building to keep me from entering, and I was threatened in an unmarked envelope left at my front door on a Sunday morning with the loss of my retirement for five years and the loss of my health coverage forever if I did not retire immediately."
Beers did retire, but he didn't stay quiet. After being recognized by the Office of Independent Counsel as a bona fide whistle blower, Beers won a sizable settlement and a letter of apology from the FWS. He has been an instrumental and compelling witness in Congress, and has prompted a new round of GAO scrutiny.
"Many of the problems we identified in our July 1999 testimony" before the House Committee on Resources "were the same as those we identified six years ago," said GAO's Barry T. Hill . "As part of our recent" investigation of FWS, "we found that the Service had not been entirely responsive to our earlier recommendations to correct the management problems we identified in our previous review... .
"We are hopeful, but not confident, that the agency will be committed to implementing planned changes and that the changes will result in lasting improvement. Our lack of confidence is due to the Office of Federal Aid's poor track record in dealing with the identified problems."
After GAO investigators checked files on grants for fiscal years 1993 through 1998, Hill testified that the records "were incomplete, out of date, and disorganized. ... In many instances, we could not track and verify the status of a grant, the amounts authorized for payment, or the time periods in which these expenditures were made."
The Bureaucratic Betrayal of Trust
In auditing the "sportsmen's trust fund," the Government Accounting Office found:
- "Controls over expenditure, revenues, and grants were inadequate"
- "Millions of dollars in program funds couldn't be tracked"
- "Basic principles and procedures for managing travel funds weren't followed"
- "Basic internal control standards or Office of Management and Budget guidance for maintaining complete and accurate grants files weren't followed"
- "Regional offices used administrative funds inconsistently and for purposes that weren't clearly justified"
- "Charges for Service-wide overhead may not be accurate"
- "Routine audits to determine whether administrative funds were being used for authorized purposes weren't conducted"
- "The process for resolving audit findings involving states' use of program funds was questionable"
Source: Testimony of Barry T. Hill, Associate Director for the GAO
What investigators could document was not only outrageous, but also possibly illegal. For instance, the Service used excise tax funds paid by sportsmen to pay for alcoholic beverages -- a violation of federal regulations -- and also reimbursed the costs of single meals that were twice the daily amount allowed by law for a full day of food costs while on travel.
Meanwhile, Service bosses spent tens of thousands of sportsmen's tax dollars on junkets to Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and Amsterdam, further reducing funds that should have been returned to the states for wildlife conservation projects. According to law, what is not used for legitimate overhead expenses by FWS must be turned over to the states.
In a letter to the Washington Times, Rob Gordon, director of the National Wilderness Institute, put these egregious abuses in another perspective. To pay $26,000 in travel costs to go to Japan and Brazil, "about 37,000 miles of fishing line had to be sold to generate enough excise taxes" for those trips, "enough to circle the Earth about 1 and 1/2 times."
The FWS federal aid chief spent $32,000 of conservation funds on travel in 18 months, with approval for many of the trips signed by his subordinates, the GAO reported.
Chairman Young is now drafting reform legislation that will not only specify exactly what the FWS can spend the excise taxes on, but also spell out what the Service may not spend such funds on, with the goal of setting a reduced cap on administrative costs.
"The hope is that we will get a bill to the floor of the House by spring," says one Capitol Hill staffer. "In the meantime, we have retained an outside contractor to do an independent audit, because no one is certain yet where all this money has gone."
Several years back, NRA called for a Congressional review of how FWS was spending administrative funds for overhead expenses and expressed concern that special accounts were being set up in violation of the law. NRA has thrown its weight behind Young's much-needed reform bill.
America's hunters, shooters, and anglers deserve a swift Congressional remedy to ensure that our trust cannot be abused again by anti-hunting political appointees burrowed deep within the Clinton-Gore Administration. Future articles will explore this scandal in greater detail, but now is the time to call your Congressman at (202) 225-3121 to urge support for Chairman Young's Pittman-Robertson reform bill.
Part Two of a Special Report
Part Two of a Special Report
House Resources Committee from NRA members protesting abuses by the Clinton-Gore Administration.
NRA members are strongly urged to contact your U.S. Senators at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to vote for S.2609, the Senate version of Congressman Young's legislation to safeguard from abuse the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson trusts that your dollars fund. You can e-mail your Senators using the "Write Your Reps" feature at www.nraila.org.
I hear many comments from NRA members, but the one that bothers me the most is the statement that, while that person is resolute in supporting NRA's struggle to safeguard the Second Amendment, he or she doesn't bother to vote, believing that one individual can't make a difference.
Here I hope to prove the fallacy of such cynicism.
On April 5, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 423-2 to pass the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Programs Improvement Act of 2000. It was a desperately needed legislative remedy to the chronic abuse and misappropriation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS) of two conservation trust funds cherished by hunters and fishermen.
You may have read about this outrageous situation in the March issue, in a special report titled "Betrayal of Trust." This rousing legislative victory is, in large measure, due to individual NRA members whose protests were coordinated in a targeted mailing by your NRA Institute for Legislative Action (ILA).
Getting a bill passed by the House in nine months--from request for records, hearings, bill drafting and committee reports to a full floor vote--seldom happens. But this time, you, the individual NRA member, helped make it happen.
Chaired by Don Young (R-Alaska), who also sits on the NRA Board of Directors, the House Committee on Resources began hearings last summer into allegations of financial finagling by the F&WS. The service oversees two trust funds, which are funded by an excise tax paid every time an angler, archer, hunter or sport shooter buys firearms, related equipment or supplies.
By law, F&WS is supposed to keep only a small percentage of the tax collected, and only to pay for administrative costs. Under the Pittman Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, originally passed in 1937, and similar revenues generated by fishing-related sales under the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950, the bulk of funds is mandated by law to be sent by F&WS to state fish and wildlife agencies to expand habitat and increase sport fish and game populations.
Over the decades, the human population grew, and so did the number of people hunting, fishing and participating in recreational shooting, dramatically increasing the amount of revenue collected from the excise taxes until it equaled a third of the F&WS budget.
Thus, the administrative funds, as a percentage of the total excise taxes collected, became the seeds of temptation that, under the administration of Bill Clinton--who we know has a weakness for temptation--bloomed into yet another scandal. As more and more millions piled up in the two trust funds, "it was like an open vault," one congressional investigator said. "It was an invitation for the system to fail, and hunters and fishermen to be had. You don't need more money to administer a program just because more money is there."
The sad fact is that congressional staffers and financial sleuths from the General Accounting Office (GAO) still aren't sure how much money was diverted, or where it went. One GAO investigator testified that F&WS administration of the trust funds was "one of the worst managed programs we have ever encountered."
Looking at fiscal years 1996-98, GAO and committee staff say $15 million annually, or $45 million, was misappropriated or stolen. If all records were available, the figure could have been much higher.
F&WS bosses used these administrative funds to engage in some budgetary hocus-pocus. In a long-running shell game, funds obligated by law to benefit state fish and wildlife agencies were diverted without congressional approval into accounts to fund pet projects of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, such as reintroduction of the gray wolf--just one reason given for why F&WS staff made an incredible 79 trips to Canada in eight years.
One F&WS executive even referred to one of the illicit accounts in an e-mail read at one congressional hearing as "my slush fund."
What investigators were able to document was bad enough. Among other revelations about inept record-keeping and deceptive accounting schemes were expense and travel vouchers detailing illegal charges for liquor, limousines and lavish meals. F&WS employees made 107 trips to Venezuela, Mexico, Japan, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Brazil, New Zealand, Russia and England. Taxes paid by hunters and fishermen paid for one F&WS official to go to Puerto Rico 17 times in 18 months. Puerto Rico and Atlantic City, N.J., also were popular spots for F&WS bosses to hold meetings, travel documents confirm.
Congressman Young, a member of the NRA Board of Directors, thanks ILA's Jim Baker.
Chairman Young's hearings concluded in October, and by February, the committee drafted and approved a reform measure to stop F&WS funding shenanigans. On April 5, the House voted in near unanimity in favor of the proposed law, aimed at "eliminating waste, fraud, abuse and unauthorized expenditures" within the F&WS. The House bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Passage of the House reform bill was a rousing grassroots victory, not just for NRA members, but for all the nation's hunters and anglers. But the individual effort of each NRA member made a big collective impression. More than 200,000 of your postcards of support were received by the House Resources Committee where one staffer said, "It's the most correspondence we've ever had on any Fish and Wildlife Service issue."
A spokesman at the Department of the Interior, which includes the F&WS, estimated that 65,000 cards of protest were received from irate NRA members. One witness reports 77 trays of your postcards stacked outside the office of Don Barry, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, who oversees the F&WS.
While it's appropriate that we congratulate these members for their success, this is not the time to rest. Our work is not done yet. Victory has been won in the House, but a major battle remains in the Senate. Clinton's and Gore's political cronies running F&WS will seek to persuade their Senate allies to pull the teeth from S.2609--the critical mechanisms that will hold F&WS financially and legally accountable.
Among other corrective measures, Young's bill: 1) sets a strict limit on how much F&WS's federal aid program can charge off as "administrative costs," 2) requires that foreign travel charged to these funds be approved by an assistant secretary in the Department of the Interior--not a F&WS staff subordinate, as happened in at least one case, 3) eliminates the percentage formula in favor of a set dollar amount and 4) requires an ongoing account audit of all F&WS expenditures.
In a response to NRA-ILA's report about the scandal, F&WS Director Jamie Rappaport Clark addressed NRA-ILA supporters on the Service's website, denying that any wrongdoing or illegal conduct occurred. She attributed the accounting discrepancies to "management shortcomings," saying that not a single dollar of hunters' and fishermen's tax money was misspent or lost and that NRA is motivated only by "a partisan political agenda."
Only someone who's been part of the Clinton-Gore team would attempt to characterize an issue decided by a 423-2 congressional vote as "partisan." In my reply to Clark (www.nraila.org under "Letter to NRA Members"), I pointed out that the overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill validates the findings of GAO's audit and other investigations and voices strong approval for reform to be made through the legislative process.
If we are to believe Clark, the problem was not in money lost, but in the reconciliation of records due to a change in the accounting system. F&WS promised Chairman Young that a full accounting would be made by the end of 1999. The Congressman and his committee staff tell me that, almost half way into the year 2000, they are still waiting for all these records.
What we can believe, from Clark's letter, is that F&WS and Interior are still in denial over many aspects of the issues raised by the congressional hearings and the GAO audit. They continue to defend the indefensible. So we can expect to hear more about all this. In the meantime, thanks again to those NRA members who went to the mailbox to be counted.
On November 7, you must be counted again--this time at the ballot box.
The Shameful Abuse of Bonnie Kline
If F&WS Director Clark and her Department of the Interior bosses want to restore their lost credibility, they would demand an immediate resolution of the disgraceful case of Bonnie Kline. A computer security specialist at F&WS, Kline testified under oath before Young's committee about threats made to her by her bosses if she did not hide or destroy e-mails sought by investigators--some of the e-mails were sought by the FBI in a criminal probe.
Unaware of the panic among F&WS officials over the escalating investigation, Kline was escorted onto a balcony at the F&WS headquarters in Arlington, Va., by her first- and second-echelon supervisors. She was then threatened with the loss of her job if she cooperated in any way with investigators.
Sitting the single mother of two down in a chair, the men loomed over her. Kline recalls her second-tier boss telling her he had "just received something short of a subpoena. If anybody comes to you, asking for tapes or copies of tapes, you are not to cooperate with any of them. ... You report it immediately to me. ... You do not understand how serious this situation is, and I want you to stay out of it. ... I'm telling you to keep your mouth shut. ... You're going to put your career in jeopardy if you mess with any of this."
"He told me if I went up against him, I would lose," she said recently. Immediately after this conversation, his first-line supervisor called her into his office and offered her a job transfer and promotion, from a GS-11 to a GS-13. She responded that she'd like to see a job description.
Kline, who had received numerous citations and cash awards for her work at F&WS, did not know that, besides the congressional and GAO investigations of financial improprieties at F&WS, the FBI had launched a probe of its own. FBI agents were investigating whether F&WS officials illegally diverted several million dollars in funds appropriated for other purposes to buy land in south Florida in the months leading up to the elections of 1996. The land deals allegedly were made for political purposes that would benefit the Democratic Party in that state.
FBI agents were seeking e-mails in which this alleged funds diversion was discussed. The supervisor who threatened Kline had himself signed an affidavit stating that e-mail back-ups were only kept for three months. When Kline was later contacted by an investigator from the Office of Special Counsel, she told the truth. Old e-mail tapes went back at least 18 months. She signed an affidavit to that effect.
What happened next to Kline can't help reminding one of the ongoing investigation into missing White House e-mails. When congressional investigators and FBI agents looking into allegedly illegal fundraising by, among others, Vice President Al Gore, contract employees at the White House who, like Kline, were custodians of e-mail back-up tapes, said they were threatened by White House staffers with jail if they simply told the truth.
When her F&WS bosses learned that Kline was obeying the law and telling the truth to officials looking into the F&WS scandal, they created a very hostile work environment for her, one in which she was publicly ridiculed and humiliated. A threatening note was left on her desk after her lawyers wrote her bosses. Her computer security access codes were changed without notice, and the e-mail tapes disappeared.
After Kline testified in Congress about wrongdoing at F&WS, including an incident in which her immediate supervisor told her to erase the e-mail tapes with a magnet, something he admitted in a deposition, the open hostility got even worse. One colleague went unpunished after throwing a phone that just missed hitting Kline in the head.
After two letters of reprimand, F&WS thrust Kline into a legal limbo in which she doesn't get paid, but hasn't been fired and consequently can't get another job--all because she told the truth before Congress and to a criminal probe by the FBI and the Office of Special Counsel.
Her two teenage children, straight-A students, don't fully understand why they might be forced to move out of their Northern Virginia townhouse, or why their perpetually nervous mom has to get loans from friends and family just to put food on the table.
Meanwhile, F&WS Director Clark, as evidenced by her letter, must be happy in the knowledge that Bonnie Kline, as a tortured example of what happens to employees who choose right over wrong and embrace truth in the midst of lies, will serve as an example to keep other employees possibly inclined toward truth and justice quiet and in line, intimidated and subjugated.
Congressman Young's work is not yet finished. On April 26, he subpoenaed the Department of the Interior to produce all personnel records, letters, memos and, yes, e-mails, pertaining in any way to Kline. Interior must produce "all records regarding the interaction between the Office of the Solicitor . . . and the Office of Special Counsel," including "documents subject to attorney-client privilege."
The disgraceful story of how the Clinton-Gore Administration treated, and continues to treat, Bonnie Kline will continue to unfold.