Politics & Government

Rogers wants taxpayer help for cheetahs

U.S. Rep Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, photographed in 2007. Photo by David Perry | Staff
U.S. Rep Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, photographed in 2007. Photo by David Perry | Staff

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, is sponsoring a bill to give $5 million a year to conservation groups that work overseas on behalf of endangered "great cats and rare canids," such as cheetahs, lions and Ethiopian wolves.

One group interested in applying, should Rogers' bill become law, is the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Its grants administrator, Allison Rogers, is the congressman's daughter.

"Obviously, I'm waiting with bated breath," said Allison Rogers, who lives in Versailles. "It would help us a lot because the Cheetah Conservation Fund does not have a very big budget."

She and her father say there is no conflict of interest. The congressman from southeastern Kentucky long has been a champion of wildlife, she said.

"Dad is, I think, very involved in the environment, both in his district and on a global level," Allison Rogers said. "Neither his or my involvement in this is cheating the public or taking advantage of my dad's position."

In a prepared statement, a spokeswoman for Hal Rogers listed more than two dozen conservation groups other than the Cheetah Conservation Fund that could ask for the money, including the Jane Goodall Institute, the Humane Society of the United States and the Sierra Club.

"A wealth of organizations would benefit from these grants, and all would be able to apply without any congressional influence over the selection process," Rogers' spokeswoman Stefani Zimmerman said.

"While the congressman's daughter is equally passionate about conservation, her recent work on behalf of the Cheetah Conservation Fund would never be a factor in the allocation of this funding," Zimmerman said. "To suggest otherwise is unfounded and completely false."

But a conservative budget watchdog said Hal Rogers should be more prudent.

"Who's against helping cheetahs? Nobody. But c'mon, this reeks of nepotism," said David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington. "This is the kind of thing that gets taxpayers so frustrated with Congress."

This isn't the first time Rogers has steered money in the direction of his family.

In 2004, Senture, a call-services center in London, hired one of Rogers' sons as a computer systems administrator just after the lawmaker helped it win a $4 million homeland security contract. Father and son said there was no connection between the contract and the job.

"There needs to be much more of a fire wall with things like this," Williams said. "It isn't difficult. You just don't allocate money to projects where your children are employed. The problem with Congressman Rogers is, he thinks there's nothing wrong with it."

Rogers and two other congressmen initially sponsored "The Great Cats Conservation Act" in 2007 to establish a $5 million annual fund for overseas wildlife protection. That bill died in the Senate.

Rogers and his colleagues tried again in 2009. The House voted 290-119 to pass the bill, with Rogers breaking from his Republican caucus to support it; the bill now awaits action in the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.

Allison Rogers, who has a journalism degree from the University of Kentucky, joined the Cheetah Conservation Fund in 2007 as part of its U.S. fund-raising and educational operations.

The fund works to ensure the survival of the cheetahs in Africa, where an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 live. On its most recent nonprofit tax filing, in 2008, the fund reported $1.2 million in revenue, mostly from grants and contributions.

Allison Rogers said she met Laurie Marker, the fund's co-founder and executive director, through her father.

Hal Rogers and his wife, Cynthia, have joined at least two congressional trips to Africa since 2000, including one with Namibia on its itinerary. During that trip, the congressional delegation received a gift of 10 cheetahs from the Namibian government, several of which went to the Cincinnati Zoo.

Allison Rogers said she admired Marker's work with cheetahs even before her dad introduced the two women. By then, Hal Rogers was a member of the congressional International Conservation Caucus, or ICC; a related non-profit, the ICC Foundation, paid the $15,448 cost of Hal Rogers' 2008 trip with his wife to a Kenyan wildlife conservancy.

"As luck would have it," Allison Rogers said, her father's introduction "turned into a full-time position for me."