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Two Elk developer charged with federal criminal fraud

Federal prosecutors have charged Michael J. Ruffatto, developer of the once-proposed Two Elk coal-fired power plant near Gillette, with criminal fraud for bills he submitted under a 2009-2010 federal stimulus grant to research carbon storage on his site in rural Campbell County, according court documents obtained by WyoFile.

President of Colorado-based North American Power Group Ltd, Ruffatto

Michael Ruffatto, president of North American Power Group

Michael Ruffatto, president of North American Power Group

faces up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and possibly a requirement for restitution of funds under the federal False Claims Act on charges that he presented a “false, fictitious or fraudulent” bill to the U.S. government.  Ruffatto, who is also a lawyer, waived indictment and is scheduled to appear before a federal judge in Pittsburgh, Pa., on October 21.

Ruffatto did not comment on the criminal charges but issued a statement saying that he intends to repay “in full” the $5.7 million, out of the $7.8 million his company received from the stimulus program, that the Department of Energy has demanded be repaid. Some two years ago, the federal agency insisted on repayment due to what it called  “serious mismanagement or misuse of funds” by Ruffatto’s company.

The North American Power Group and its chief executive were the focus of a seven-part WyoFile investigative series, “The Two Elk Saga,” that appeared in May and June 2014. The federal charges are tied to one invoice, not identified in the charges. Notable among the questionable government payments received by Ruffatto, WyoFile reported, was a $2,791,103 invoice from his subsidiary North American Land & Livestock, ostensibly to develop the site.

Ruffatto also used the stimulus funds to pay himself and his vice president Brad Enzi, the son of Wyoming’s senior U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, more than $1.2 million in salaries over a two-year period.

Brad Enzi was not named in the federal charges filed in Pittsburgh federal court on August 9. Neither he nor his father, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, responded to WyoFile requests for comment on the charges against Ruffatto.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by WyoFile, the Department of Energy revealed in February 2015 that it had ordered Ruffatto to pay back $5.7 million of the $7.8 million his company received from the stimulus program because of  “serious mismanagement or misuse of funds.”

In a statement at the time, Ruffatto claimed to have repaid $2 million of the money demanded by the government. Recently, a company spokesman told WyoFile on Oct. 4, Ruffatto made another $1 million payment and pledged to repay the full amount owed the government.  Ruffatto, who has hired Denver white-collar-crime defense specialists Chad Williams and Jason D. Schall with the law firm Davis Graham & Stubbs to represent him in court, did not comment on the criminal charges.

Through spokesman Charles Russell, Ruffatto issued the following statement:

“North American Power Group, Ltd. entered into a cooperative agreement with the Department Of Energy-National Energy Technology Laboratory in 2009.  As litigation is now pending about that agreement, it would be inappropriate for the company or its President to comment on the details of this matter at this time other than to note that, to date, they have repaid the federal government a total of $3 million, which includes a recent $1 million payment, and they intend to repay the federal government in full.”

Since nearly 20 years ago, when he first proposed building a series of power plants in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to serve the electric needs of Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona, Ruffatto and his company have had a long—and for taxpayers, costly— relationship with state and federal governments.

Want to revisit the Two Elk Saga? Click here.

 

The state backed the project with bonding authority and sales tax dollars. Two successive Wyoming governors, Republican Jim Geringer and Democrat Dave Freudenthal, gave North American Power Group $445 million from the state’s allotment of tax-exempt industrial bonds to finance a 320-megawatt coal-fired power plant. Wyoming state officials, meanwhile, ponied up $11 million in sales tax dollars to build roads and infrastructure to support the proposed plant.

The roads were built but the plant never was. After more than ten years of extensions negotiated by Brad Enzi before the state Industrial Siting Council, the company let a state air quality permit allowing construction expire this past summer, effectively killing the $1-billion Two Elk project.

Campbell County rancher Dan Tracy lives near the proposed Two Elk power generation site. After two decades in the works, only a concrete pad, a tin building and some dirt work exist. (Rone Tempest/WyoFile)

Campbell County rancher Dan Tracy lives near the proposed Two Elk power generation site. After two decades in the works, only a concrete pad, a tin building and some dirt work exist. (Rone Tempest/WyoFile)

In 2009-2010, as part of the carbon capture and storage proposal for the site, Ruffatto’s North American Power Group was awarded two grants totaling nearly $10 million under the National Recovery Act, the Obama administration program to create jobs and revive the then-moribund economy.  The Department of Energy suspended the grants in January 2012, citing numerous accounting irregularities. As a result the company received only a portion – $7.8 million – of the total it was originally awarded in grants.The Two Elk grants created no new jobs. The exploratory well that was specified as the centerpiece of the research was never drilled.

But by the time the DOE acted to suspend the grants, $7.8 million had already been paid to Ruffatto, Brad Enzi and the North American Power Group.  In late 2014, the DOE ordered Ruffatto to pay back $5.7 million, or nearly 75 percent, of that money.

Although he still owes the federal government millions, Ruffatto, who owns homes in Cherry Creek Village, Colorado, and Newport Beach, California continues to practice philanthropy on a grand scale. In July, he and his socialite wife Eve participated in a star-studded $1-million Orange County fundraiser for the Oceana environmental organization at which they were honored as 2016 Ocean Champions for their “dedication to ocean conservation and generous support of Oceana.”

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About the Author

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Rone Tempest was a longtime national and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In 2004 he was part of a team of reporters to win the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the massive wildfires in Southern California. From 2000-2007 he was a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of California, Berkeley. One of the co-founders of WyoFile, he served as its editor from 2008 to 2011. Rone lives in Lander.

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5 Responses to Two Elk developer charged with federal criminal fraud

  1. Larry Antelope October 5, 2016 at 6:14 pm #

    Awesome journalism from start to finish. now if the feds do their job, Ruffatto will be in jail.

    Missoula, Montana

  2. Will Bagley October 5, 2016 at 3:25 pm #

    Great work, Rone. Ruffatto & Enzi should go to jail for racketeering.

    Salt Lake, Utah

  3. Geoffrey O'Gara
    Geoff OG October 5, 2016 at 8:23 am #

    In depth investigative journalism may be diminished with the decline of print media generally, but here it is in Wyoming, alive and well. Kudos to Rone Tempest and Wyofile.

    Lander, Wyoming

  4. Shannon Anderson October 5, 2016 at 8:02 am #

    Thank you Rone and WyoFile for your follow-up of this investigation and bringing critical government papers to the public’s eye. I for one am happy to see the justice brought to this issue. It is a long time coming.

    Sheridan, Wyoming

  5. Chuck Harris October 4, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

    As always, Thank you for some remarkable investigative journalism… From the start to the present. CH

    Jackson, Wyoming

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