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Feds defend conference trip to Vegas

9:13 PM, Oct 18, 2013   |    comments
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DENVER - A 9Wants to Know investigation has discovered a tax-payer funded trip to Las Vegas for several government workers, despite sequestration cuts that have meant an unpaid days off for some military employees and continued governmental pay and hiring freezes for many open positions.

Six employees from the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) spent about $13,200 to attend a fraud investigators conference in June even though a similar conference offered by the Colorado fraud investigator's chapter was planned for Denver.

The employees from ONRR are responsible for enforcing rules that require oil & mineral companies pay states a use fee for drilling or pumping on public lands.

An ONRR spokesman defended the trip.

"The employees met all requirements of Department of the Interior (DOI) criteria for travel, training and conference attendance. They also met ONRR controls that are, in fact, stricter than those required by the DOI," Department of Interior Office of Natural Resources Revenue spokesman Patrick Etchart said in a written statement.

He declined to speak on camera.

9Wants to Know confirmed attendees could have received the 20 continuing education credits needed to earn their fraud examiners certification without traveling out of state.

The Colorado Chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners is holding its two-day conference Oct. 17-18 for a fraction of the $800 cost of the Las Vegas Conference. Attendees at the Colorado conference will receive 15 of the 20 needed credits for $250.

"We put on a quality conference," said Gary Schwartz, Colorado Chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners President. "The national conference does have more seminars and more diverse training. It's also a good conference."

Other credits can be earned by taking online classes or attending frequent education breakfast sessions.

"It's not about the money. It's about the principle," anti-big government activist Jon Caldera, of Denver's Independence Institute, said. "What happened at this conference is just another small but direct example of how government does its business with disregard to the taxpayer. It's as if the money isn't their own. They have to tax it, not earn it."

ONRR DISBURSES BILLIONS

Etchart noted that ONRR helps bring in billions for taxpayers.

"During Fiscal Year 2012, ONRR disbursed more than $12 billion to various states, American Indian Tribes and individual Indian mineral owners, to the U.S. Treasury, and to various special-use accounts, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Reclamation Fund, and the Historic Preservation Fund," Etchart wrote in the statement.

"ONRR is among the largest contributors of non-tax revenues to the U.S. Treasury, behind only the Internal Revenue Service," he said.

QUESTIONABLE SPENDING

9Wants to Know also discovered after the conference ended, taxpayers paid for some Las Vegas conference attendees' to spend an extra day in Las Vegas. Taxpayers covered meals and hotels for that time period.

The attendees went to the Certified Fraud Examiners conference June 24-26. Most attendees flew in the day before the conference and left 23 hours after it ended. The conference ended June 26 at 12:30 p.m., but some attendees didn't fly home until the following day at 11:30 a.m.

Taxpayers paid Las Vegas conference attendees a per diem rate after the conference ended of $36 for each person's dinner, about $100 for each hotel room and $53.25 for meals for the following day.

ONRR Spokesman Pat Etchart said most employees had to fly back the next day because they did not book tickets far in advance. Though the trip was approved in May, many tickets weren't booked until June.

ONRR Supervisor Deborah Gibbs-Tschudy told 9NEWS reporter Jace Larson even if the employees had returned the afternoon the conference ended, ONRR would have had to pay them comp time if their flight arrived later than the end of their usual work day. She said costs for that would have been about the same as the costs for hotel and meals for the extra day in Las Vegas.

PAST PROBLEMS

ONRR was formerly the Minerals Management Service.

The Minerals Management Service was blasted in a 2010 Inspector General's report that showed employees responsible for oversight of oil companies' drilling accepted gifts from an oil company. Investigators thought an inspector from the Louisiana office was under the influence of crystal methamphetamine during an inspection.

After the well-publicized scandal, the office was reorganized by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and named the Office of Natural Resources Revenue.

FULL STATEMENT

The following is the full statement from ONRR. Note that a total number of employees from ONRR attended the conference. Six were from Colorado and were the focus of the 9NEWS story. Also, while 40 credits could be earned, most attendees attended seminars to earn 20 - the number required for certification.

"As a regulatory and oversight agency, the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) is charged with ensuring that energy companies report and pay the proper royalties for energy production that occurs on Federal and American Indian lands and on the Outer Continental Shelf. ONRR maintains an extensive audit and compliance program and an Office of Enforcement that issues civil penalties, takes other enforcement actions to ensure compliance, and frequently works with the Department of Justice and the Office of Inspector General to pursue cases of fraud by energy companies. The Office of Enforcement is staffed with individuals who are certified fraud examiners, while the Audit and Compliance organization also has auditors who - as part of the Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards - are required to detect fraud during the course of their audits.

These fraud examiner and auditors must earn Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credits to maintain their certifications. As result, ONRR authorized eight employees to attend the ACFE (Association of Certified Fraud Examiners) Global Fraud Conference June 23-28, 2013, that was held in Las Vegas, Nev. That conference is a multi-subject training opportunity that focuses on identifying and combating fraud, waste and abuse.

The conference and its various training programs offered 40 CPEs to those who attended and participated in the training programs.

More than 2,500 people attended the conference, including representatives from the Office of Inspector General, the FBI, NCIS, IRS, FDIC, Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Treasury, Department of Labor, the U.S. Postal Service-OIG, numerous city, country and state law enforcement agencies, and numerous universities, banks and corporations, to name a few. The City of Colorado Springs sent a representative, as did Denver International Airport. The conference was also covered by several national news organizations.

The total cost for the eight ONRR employees to attend the multiple-day conference was approximately $17,485. That cost includes conference registration, airfare, lodging and daily per diem, and works out to an average of a little over $2,100 per employee.

The employees met all requirements of Department of the Interior (DOI) criteria for travel, training and conference attendance. They also met ONRR controls that are, in fact, stricter than those required by the DOI.

During Fiscal Year 2012, ONRR disbursed more than $12 billion to various states, American Indian Tribes and individual Indian mineral owners, to the U.S. Treasury, and to various special-use accounts, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Reclamation Fund, and the Historic Preservation Fund.

Operating on a FY 2013 annual budget of approximately $113 million, ONRR is among the largest contributors of non-tax revenues to the U.S. Treasury, behind only the Internal Revenue Service.

ONRR's Audit and Compliance Program has collected more than $4 billion in additional revenues for taxpayers from its audits and other compliance checks of energy companies, while its Office of Enforcement has collected more than $48 million in civil penalties since its inception in 1982.

The Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) remains committed to collecting every dollar due from energy production that occurs on Federal and American Indian lands, and on the Outer Continental Shelf. Ensuring its fraud examiners remain certified is essential for ONRR's continued success.

Have a comment or tip for investigative reporter Jace Larson? Call him at 303-871-1432 or e-mail him
jace.larson@9news.com

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