An audit of a Yolo County agency charged with land conservation has uncovered the unauthorized use of $1.8 million that had been earmarked for protection of the foraging habitat of the Swainson's hawk. The audit also found that standard accounting practices were not followed.
The financial audit of the Yolo Natural Heritage Program Joint Powers Agency, or JPA, was completed in May and found that its former director, Maria Wong, had moved $1.8 million out of the hawk fund without anyone's knowledge at the agency or the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Wong could not be reached for comment.
The Swainson's hawk mitigation fund receives its money from developers to offset the effects of development on Swainson's hawk populations in Yolo County.
Instead of being used for that purpose, the audit found, the funds were spent by the JPA on crafting an ambitious and wide-ranging 50-year conservation plan for Yolo County and other administrative activity. Much of the transferred funds went to pay consultants for the conservation plan. That plan which is a decade in the making and has yet to be approved by members of the JPA has already cost $6.4 million.
Discovery of the unauthorized use of the funds has deeply riled advocates of the Swainson's hawk, which is listed as a threatened species in California.
"The JPA clearly violated its 2006 agreement with California Department of Fish and Game by spending $1.8 million from the Swainson's Hawk Mitigation Trust Funds for unauthorized purposes," said Judith Lamare, president of the Friends of the Swainson's Hawk.
The unauthorized transfer is all the more galling to the Sacramento group given that $2 million was transferred out of the fund in 2006.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which oversees the protection of threatened species in the state, agreed to that transfer because it felt it would help the crafting of the ongoing conservation plan. The agreement states that the money could be used for the plan if no other funds could be found. It has not been established how deeply the JPA explored other avenues of revenue for the conservation plan.
"We don't like the notion of using mitigation money intended to buy habitat to prepare a conservation plan, but we didn't make an issue of it," said James Pachl, an attorney with the Friends of the Swainson's Hawk.
Pachl said most of the money in the hawk fund was collected prior to 2006. "Those projects have not been mitigated. There was a lot of development in Davis and West Sacramento, but that money is all gone."
The dark-feathered Swainson's hawk was once plentiful throughout most of California's lowlands.
The bird, now mainly found in Sacramento, San Joaquin and Yolo counties, thrives near alfalfa farms. But its populations have suffered from urban development and the expansion of wineries.
As many as 17,000 breeding pairs of Swainson's hawk were believed to have resided in the Central Valley early last century. By the 1980s, the population had declined to only 375 breeding pairs, according to a report prepared for the JPA in 2008. More recently, thanks to the JPA's conservation efforts, the species is on the rebound, with 2,072 breeding pairs inventoried in the Valley, according to the report.
Some feel that the diversion of mitigation funds to craft the conservation plan may lead to the county being able to purchase more land for the hawk population.
"If the conservation plan is approved and adopted by the agency, then we would have, in fact, more Swainson's hawk protected than if we didn't have a conservation plan," said Chad Roberts, a member of a JPA advisory committee and of the Friends of the Swainson's Hawk board.
"Ultimately, I would hope that all of the mitigation funds are used for acquiring Swainson's hawk habitat. That was the purpose," Roberts said.
The transfer of $1.8 million came as a surprise to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said spokesman Mike Taugher. "We were disappointed by the findings. The department feels that mitigation money should be spent on the ground," Taugher said.
The department's agreement with the JPA gives Fish and Wildlife oversight over how the Swainson's hawk mitigation funds are spent.
The hawk fund requires developments of less than 40 acres to pay a mitigation fee, currently $8,660. Projects larger than 40 acres must acquire conservation easements to offset each acre developed. So far $3.8 million in Swainson's hawk funds has been spent on mitigating development in Yolo County.
Taugher said that although the unauthorized use of funds was a surprise, problems simmering at the agency were not. "We've been aware of the financial difficulties at the JPA for some time," he said.
The JPA's seven-member board which includes representatives from Davis, Woodland, West Sacramento, Winters and UC Davis was also aware of financial discrepancies and undertook an examination of the JPA's finances last June.
In August last year, it convened a special board meeting to remove Wong from oversight of the conservation plan. She resigned the next day, said current executive director Petrea Marchand.
Wong, who was making a yearly salary of $87,996 at the JPA, could not be reached for comment.
In requesting the recent audit, the JPA sought a deeper accounting than had been done previously. The audit found the unauthorized transfer of funds by Wong happened in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
In some cases, the audit found, it was impossible to tell whether specific work done by consultants matched the invoices that the JPA paid.
To date $735,000 is left in the Swainson's hawk mitigation account, which has collected roughly $8.3 million since its creation in 2002.
Before the audit, the agency took steps to establish more oversight, accountability and transparency over budgetary issues, including the hiring of Marchand as executive director, said JPA board President Don Saylor.
"This is one of those lessons that when everyone is in charge, there is no one in charge," said Chris Ledesma, a West Sacramento city councilman and vice chairman of the JPA board.
"This has been a lesson in the diligence that we need to have on these boards that we sit on," Ledesma said. "It's a responsibility we all bear."
Pachl, of Friends of the Swainson's Hawk, said he believes the JPA bears the responsibility of replacing the $3.8 million that has been transferred out of the fund.
"There has been $3.8 million put in by developers to acquire mitigation easements in Yolo County to protect farmland and Swainson's hawk foraging habitat and that money is gone," said Pachl. "And that bothers me a whole lot."
Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.