What kind of project pays a couple of politically connected people hundreds of thousands of dollars for producing next to nothing? An Obama stimulus project, of course.
More than four years after President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus package into law, troubling details continue to emerge. Earlier this month, for example, the nonprofit news site WyoFile reported that a $10 million stimulus project in Wyoming has been suspended and referred to the U.S. Attorney’s office for an investigation into possible fraud.
Between 2009 and 2010, the federal government awarded two stimulus grants totaling more than $9.9 million to Colorado-based North American Power Group (NAPG). The funding was designated for a “characterization” study to determine whether a river basin near the Two Elk Energy Park in northeast Wyoming had potential as an underground site for carbon storage. However, as WyoFile has extensively documented, the project appears, at best, to have been a questionable use of taxpayer dollars. The project created zero jobs, according to Recovery.gov, and many of the study’s primary components, including the drilling of a deep “characterization well,” were never completed — or even formally initiated. Records show nearly $3 million in dubious invoices from North American Land & Livestock, a company managed by NAPG CEO Michael Ruffatto.
Federal records also reveal that at least $1.1 million in stimulus funding went toward paying the salaries and benefits of two NAPG employees: Ruffatto and Wyoming representative Brad Enzi, the son of U.S. Senator Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.). Ruffatto was reportedly compensated with taxpayer funds at a rate exceeding $500,000 a year, while Enzi earned nearly $130,000 for his work on the project between September 2009 and July 2011, at a rate of about $80 per hour. Ruffatto received more than $73,000 in salary and benefits in October 2010 alone, after he reported working 76 hours per week on the project, in addition to his other responsibilities as NAPG chief executive. Enzi earned as much as $17,363 in one month. Enzi told WyoFile he was unaware of the accounting details of his work on the project, and he denied receiving any special treatment owing to his father, a stimulus opponent.
In contrast, a similar stimulus-funded characterization study conducted by the University of Wyoming has made considerable progress and avoided exorbitant salary and benefit costs. The highest-paid worker on the project was a research scientist who earned $110,000 in salary and benefits.
Ruffatto, a millionaire philanthropist and socialite with homes in Colorado and California, has not contributed extensively to federal politicians, but his donations have been mostly to Democrats. He gave $4,800 to the successful campaign of Senator Michael Bennet (D., Colo.) in 2010 and contributed $2,300 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2007. Ruffatto also donated to Senator Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) in 2005.