The Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against the developer of the proposed Two Elk power plant in Campbell County. The project received almost $8 million in federal stimulus money for carbon capture research but the power plant was never built, and no research was ever conducted. Rone Tempest is a reporter for WyoFile, and he has been covering the saga of the Two Elk power plant for almost a decade. He joined Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce to talk about the latest developments.
Stephanie Joyce: This week you broke the news that criminal charges were filed against the Two Elk developer Michael Ruffato. What exactly is he charged with?
Rone Tempest: He’s charged under what’s called the False Claims Act, which dates to the American Civil War. They created this act for people who bill the government for things they didn't provide or didn't do. There’s not much detail in the charge sheet. He waived indictment, he's scheduled to appear for a plee hearing on October 21st. But basically they chose one or two of the invoices he filed and are using it as the basis of a case that he falsely billed the United States and taxpayers for work that he didn't do.
Joyce: Were you surprised by these charges? Are these charges surprising?
Tempest: No. Not at all. In fact, I was told repeatedly by the DOE and the Inspector General's office there was an investigation underway and enforcement proceedings were imminent.
Joyce: And what are the potential consequences?
Tempest: He faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000—these are the maximums—complete restitution of the amount of money that he falsely billed, which in this case they claim and he seems to agree is $5.7 million, of which he’s now returned, I think $3 million. There are other, smaller punitive elements to it, but those are the main ones.
Joyce: You note in your story that Ruffato’s business partner in this, Brad Enzi, who is Senator Mike Enzi’s son, is not charged with anything. Was that surprising? And why do you think that is?
Tempest: No, it’s not surprising at all. I mean, he was basically an employee. Now, apparently, according to Brad and the interviews I did with him, he did some work on the stimulus program, but he didn't know precisely how the money was broken down, you know, from where he was was paid. And he wasn’t involved in billing or invoices, or the stimulus program required quarterly reports to the Department of Energy, and Brad Enzi wasn’t involved in those things. So, no I'm not really that surprised all that he’s not named because I have no evidence or no reporting to show that he was directly involved in what later might be construed, or might be, fraud.
Joyce: Earlier this summer the Industrial Siting Council did finally let the project’s air quality permits lapse. That presumably means the end of this project—people have called it the death of Two Elk, but it seems like that's been predicted more than once before, the death of this saga, and there always seems to be more news from it. Is this the end of the Two Elk Saga?
Tempest: You know, I don't know. I’ve done probably more than anybody else, I’ve spent years studying the company, this project and its owner or its president, Michael Ruffato, and he doesn't give up. I mean he's very persistent. He fell behind in taxes on his property up in Campbell County, the site of the proposed power plant, and it looked like they were going to sell it at auction. Then on the eve of the auction he came in with a sizable amount of money to pay the taxes. So I wouldn't count him out of anything, to tell you the truth.
Joyce: This obviously doesn’t speak very well for the vetting process for doling out federal money. Do you think this speaks to a larger issue?
Tempest: I'm not sure so much. Because let’s just take this one program—the carbon sequestration program. It looked like nine of the ten were pretty good and generally considered successful. This was the only one that didn’t work. Nine out of ten is generally pretty good in almost anything.
Joyce: Are you done reporting this story?
Tempest: I think there will still be maybe some other elements. If there is a plea hearing in Pittsburgh, as is scheduled, I might go there and you know, witness it. But I think the stories to come will mostly be follow-up to the charges.
Joyce: Thank you very much for taking time.