U.S. Resolves Fraud Allegations Against Wisconsin Land Trust
Madison, Wis. - John W. Vaudreuil, United States Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, announced today that the United States has resolved fraud allegations against the West Wisconsin Land Trust (WWLT), involving a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Office of Inspector General investigation into WWLT’s participation in a federal land conservation program. The investigation focused on the submission of false statements by its former Executive Director, Richard E. Gauger, when WWLT obtained federal funds for several land conservation easements. WWLT, a private, nonprofit regional land trust located in western Wisconsin, terminated Gauger in 2010.
Specifically, the United States alleged that WWLT, beginning in October 2003 and extending through January 2007, was the cooperating entity in the purchase of several land conservation easements and obtained all, or a portion of, its minimum required contribution from the landowners, in violation of the provisions of the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program and USDA regulations. As a result, this caused the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversees this land protection program, to pay the landowners more than they were entitled to receive for the easements under the program.
As part of the Settlement, WWLT specifically acknowledged that it, acting through its former Executive Director and others at his direction, violated the terms and conditions of the program. Similarly, Richard Gauger, in a separate agreement, specifically acknowledged that by submitting one or more false statements in support of WWLT’s federal conservation easements, he violated the terms and conditions of the program.
The Settlement Agreement requires WWLT, which is insured, to repay $50,000, a small portion of the funds provided under the land conservation program, as well as to take remedial measures to further comply with standards developed by a national land trust governing organization. The nonprofit organization also agreed to a voluntary three-year exclusion from obtaining new funds from federal conservation easement programs. WWLT has one year to implement the agreed-upon measures, and will provide an independent assessment to the United States evaluating its compliance with the terms of the Agreement.
“We’re pleased that WWLT will continue to implement remedial measures as part of this Settlement to strengthen the oversight and governance of the organization,” said U.S. Attorney Vaudreuil. “This resolution strikes the right balance -- it provides WWLT an opportunity to continue its land conservation efforts, while ensuring that it accepts responsibility for violations of this federal land conservation program.”
Gauger, who recently pleaded guilty in state court to two misdemeanor theft charges for stealing funds from WWLT, will also repay the United States $15,000 for a portion of its loss. He also agreed to a permanent exclusion from submitting or participating in federal conservation or other USDA programs.
The litigation of this matter has been handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Leslie K. Herje and Antonio M. Trillo. The investigation was handled by the USDA, Office of Inspector General.
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