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WildEarth Guardians reports alleged fraud by staffer, vendor to feds

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The Santa Fe River flows along a stretch restored by WildEarth Guardians near the Santa Fe Regional Airport on Monday. The non-profit has reported to federal authorities alleged government contract fraud by a now-fired, long-term WildEarth Guardians employee who ran the rivers\’ restoration program and an outside contractor (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, an environmental nonprofit prominent in New Mexico and around the West, has reported alleged fraudulent overbilling by a long-term employee and an outside contractor for work performed under state and federal government contracts.

WildEarth Guardians informed the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque of the scheme last week and transmitted a forensic auditor’s report to the office over the weekend.

John Horning, executive director of the non-profit, said in a meeting with reporters that the fraud took place in government contracts awarded to WildEarth Guardians to restore the water quality of rivers and streams. The work includes planting native cottonwoods and willows to provide shade, reduce water temperatures and prevent damaging algae that reduces oxygen levels.

All the contracted work was completed, but charges for fake work were added on, said Horning.

He identified the now-fired employee as Jim Matison, who was director of the restoration program, and the contractor involved as Jeff Hamm of Colorado-based Timberline LLC. He said Hamm brought the scheme to light by informing a third party, which led to an attorney contacting WildEarth Guardians on April 2.

“I am shocked, saddened and dismayed that a person I knew for 17 years and to whom we entrusted so much healing, restorative work, would betray us all so brazenly,” said Horning said of Matison.

Horning described the fraud as a “kick-back scheme” where Hamm would submit an invoice which was “partially honest,” for the work performed, and partially fraudulent, with dollar amounts added on for “made-up work” that were then paid, in all or in part, to Matison.

“They figured out a way to get the work done and still skim off the top,” Horning added.

Hamm, reached by phone Monday, had no comment. Horning said Hamm is “remorseful” and “really sort of heart-stricken by the fact he participated in this and allowed it to happen.” Efforts to reach Matison and his Albuquerque attorney were unsuccessful Monday.

Horning couldn’t say how long the fraud had been going or how much money was stolen. Horning said stream restoration work for agencies such as the state Environment Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Parks Service makes up about $1 million of WildEarth Guardians’ $4.7 million budget.

Horning said WildEarth Guardians has informed the government agencies it works for about the embezzlement. “To the agency and the person, they have been kind, compassionate and supportive in ways that kind of restored my faith in (the) human condition during a time when you lose a little faith,” he said.

He said WildEarth Guardians is likely to be hurt by news of the fraud scheme, “but cutting against that is a lot of belief in the quality of the work and a desire from the people with whom we work to carry it forward.”

Horning said the case has also been reported to the inspector generals for the federal Interior and Agriculture departments and the Environmental Protection Agency. He said his organization wants to assure taxpayers that “we will do everything we can to reclaim every last penny” stolen from federal and state agencies and supporters and donors that none of their contributions were affected.

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