Federal employees working for a Bureau of Land Management program designed to fight wildfires logged hours for fighting conflagrations that hadnt yet started and bought hundreds of thousands of dollars in gift cards using government funds, a government watchdog reports.
Disorganization within the federal fire-fighting program puts millions of dollars at risk for fraud, the Department of the Interior inspector general said in a report released Wednesday. Officials not only spend the programs money in wasteful ways, but fail to track many of the purchases they do make.
The report cited an example in which 26 employees were incorrectly paid for fighting a fire that consumed a single tree in Idaho, nearly doubling the reported cost of the incident.
Staff from the BLMs Southern Nevada office charged time for fighting fires that were not yet burning, and one employee billed that office for time spent fighting a fire that had been put out nine months earlier.
The BLM fire program received $250 million in 2013, part of which was set aside in a suppression fund meant only to cover costs incurred while putting out actual fires. The remainder was intended to pay for operational needs such as training personnel and predicting fire activity.
But staff spent money from the suppression fund on everything from meals to janitorial services, the latter of which was billed as the cost of fighting a fire in another state.
In 2011, nearly $800,000 from the suppression fund was spent on gift cards. One BLM employee pleaded guilty in December 2012 to charging $70,000 worth of personal gift cards to the suppression fund using her government purchase card.
A nearly complete lack of documentation for purchase card expenses in some BLM offices prevents the agency from calculating the actual cost of operating the program.
BLM needs to conduct normal operations within the constraints of its budget like any other agency, the report warned.
The IG attributed the problems to a perception within the BLM that firefighting efforts and business management are separate spheres of operation. However, the BLMs deputy director had highlighted the same problems with the fire programs budget in 2012.
Nearly 50,000 wildfires burned more than 4.3 million acres of land in 2013. Wildfire suppression cost the Interior Department, which allocates firefighting funds to each of its four agencies, nearly $400 million last year.