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Published May 16, 2011, 05:15 AM

Fired NRCS scientist vows to make agency 'famous'

CAVALIER, N.D. — Rosario Anthony “Tony” Valvo wonders if he ever should have come to Pembina County, N.D., to be a soil scientist in a U.S. Department of Agriculture field office.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

CAVALIER, N.D. — Rosario Anthony “Tony” Valvo wonders if he ever should have come to Pembina County, N.D., to be a soil scientist in a U.S. Department of Agriculture field office.

With his master’s degree in agronomy from Purdue University, and a slew of other technical credentials and military and other work experience, Valvo seemed more than qualified for a mid-level post in USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But he says he had little choice: His consulting company had suffered from an economic meltdown in Florida. So in March 2010, he left his wife to embark on a new federal career in Cavalier, N.D.

Then 52, Valvo says he intended to be a model NRCS employee. But he quickly ran afoul of his supervisors when he accused them of violating NRCS conflict-of-interest ethics and inadequate oversight of certain conservation programs. He took his ethics allegations to supervisors and congressional offices and other federal agencies. He saw himself as a “whistle-blower,” referring to the 2002 federal “No Fear Act.”

For their part, the supervisors said their new staff member, still in a probationary phase, was inefficient and sometimes intimidating. Matters came to a head Oct. 8, 2010. NRCS officials called the police to remove him from the Pembina County NRCS office. Superiors reported secondhand reports he may be suicidal or possibly “becoming homicidal.” One told police Valvo possessed a .44 caliber or.45 caliber pistol “for sure.” Valvo told Agweek he never owned such a pistol, but later acknowledged he’d kept a smaller-caliber pistol since the 1980s.

When asked to leave, he collapsed and was treated for a minor heart attack. He was put on leave and finally fired, effective Nov. 12.

Since his firing, Valvo has been living in his Cavalier apartment, fighting for — and receiving — unemployment compensation. He sorts through a large volume of emails, documents and legal actions. He’s also launched disciplinary complaints against his own attorney, Robert Fleming, for violating attorney-client privilege, and on Fleming’s father, Neil Fleming, the city attorney, for withholding police reports the day he was hauled out of the office.

Coming to North Dakota was a “huge mistake” that cost him his marriage, he says.

“Maybe I should have stayed home back in Florida and mixed paint for Home Depot,” he says.

Stepdad’s farm

Valvo is proud to say he’s from a “farming family.” He was born Nov. 7, 1957, at the Purdue University dispensary in West Lafayette, Ind., where his father studied mechanical engineering. His mother — an Indiana farm girl — studied macroeconomics. Tony was the oldest of four children. His parents divorced in 1969. Tony and a sister stayed with his mother, who remarried and stayed in Indiana. Two younger brothers went to live with their father in Buffalo, N.Y.

In 1974, Valvo took a test to enter the U.S. Navy.

“I didn’t want to go to college, and I didn’t want to work on a farm,” Valvo says.

He wanted to be a Naval aviator, but — failing the eyesight standards and without a college degree — he pursued a nuclear power career in the submarine corps instead. He scored well on a “basic battery test” completed submarine training in an impressive three months. He was awarded his “dolphins” medal (analogous to pilot’s wings in the Air Force) at age 17 — the youngest in his squadron ever to receive them.

Valvo was assigned to a nuclear-powered, fleet ballistic missile-carrying submarine. The USS Mariono G. Vallejo — “the gold crew” — in the engineering department of a 78-megawatt nuclear reactor. Based in Rota, Spain, he served four patrols of three months each and was honorably discharged in 1978.

Out of the Navy, Valvo decided go west to California. On the way, he stopped his Trans Am in Las Vegas and — on a lark — applied to be a “shill” at the Horseshoe Hotel. A shill pretends to be a player, to make a table look more active. Valvo went on to be a craps dealer and pit manager for casinos before heading home to school in late 1987.

Rooting in Indiana

Valvo’s stepfather is an attorney from Monticello, Ind., about 40 miles from West Lafayette and Purdue University. The step-family owns a 3,000-acre corn and soybean farm, where Valvo worked for a year as he took remedial classes before re-entering academia at Purdue at age 32.

In 1994, Valvo received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural mechanization; in 1997, he followed with a master’s in agronomy. Among other things, he taught undergraduate courses on the correct measurement of field residue and how to “ground-truth” remote sensing data. At Purdue, his academic committee was chaired by Christian “Chris” J. Johannsen, former director of a Laboratory for the Application of Remote Sensing and now professor emeritus of agronomy.

During graduate school, Valvo worked part time on a research farm, maintaining equipment related to global positioning system and precision farming. His graduate student team was paid for research by several companies, including Environmental Sciences and Research Institute, based in California. ESRI was a precursor to ARCinfo (later MAPinfo), which digitizes layers of maps in a science called spatial analysis, or geographic information system, a decision aid for land management, including agriculture.

Out of Purdue, Valvo headed back to Las Vegas. This time, he took a job with VTN Consulting Engineers, earning $88,000 a year as a Geographic Information and System analyst. VTN coordinated efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management in that area, routing storm water runoff from the so-called “Las Vegas Wash” (urban runoff, shallow groundwater, reclaimed water and storm water) safely into Lake Mead.

With ARCinfo software, he used “closed polygon topology” to measure irregularly shaped pieces of land. Federal farm agencies could use same systems used to determine eligibility and payments for federal conservation programs, he notes.

After the one-year contract with VTN ended, Valvo took a teaching job at then-private Kieser College (later, Keiser University) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In 2000, Valvo met a nurse, Linda Field, who says she was sitting in a computer class he was teaching. They were married in 2001.

Merritt Island days

Also in 2001, Valvo left teaching and started RAV Consulting (named for his initials). The couple bought a home about 125 miles north of Fort Lauderdale on the southern tip of Merritt Island, Fla. They lived on a saltwater canal on a 35-by-6-mile island that is home to John F. Kennedy Space Center, which managed and operated the shuttle program and Patrick Air Force Base, the launch base for Titan and Delta rockets.

“I was doing consulting work for big landscapers, using GIS technology,” Valvo says. “We were close to the Atlantic inner-coastal flood plain, so people needed to plant sod. I helped map this out for townships, golf courses and government entities.”

But NASA started winding down the shuttle program in 2007 and 2008, triggering a sharp economic hit. Valvo’s home went from a $500,000 value to less than $250,000.

At the start of the downturn, Valvo attended a job fair in Orlando, Fla., put on by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. A USDA recruiter suggested he take the online test. Valvo had a perfect score on the test. He started getting emails about job postings and offers. He learned that USDA’s NRCS had “critical billets” in three places — Guam; Nashville, Tenn.; and in Cavalier, N.D. — places that were having a hard time filling soil scientist positions.

He chose Pembina County.

“I wrote and called for an interview, but never got one,” he says.

The district conservationist, Josh Hanson, wouldn’t talk to him or respond to his letters before coming. His only contact was with Bob Lundquist, the NRCS technician.

“I figured this is the federal government. At some level, I should trust them. I still believe that,” he says

$100 shirts, state fair

On Oct. 15, 2009, the agency notified Valvo he’d gotten the job. The pay was about $40,000 — “the lowest-paying job I’ve ever had,” he says.

On March 29, 2010, he reported for work with what he calls a “cheery” attitude.

He says he liked the townspeople in Cavalier and enjoyed the agrarian culture. Lundquist helped Valvo find someone to rent him an apartment, some buildings that had once housed personnel on a missile base. Lundquist told Valvo that, with his credentials, he’d probably advance to a district conservationist post within a year, Valvo says.

Valvo says he aspired to be a model NRCS employee.

In his second month on the job, he was told he would staff an agency promotional booth at a booth at the North Dakota State Fair in Minot, N.D. He heard former North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven might be at the August event, so he spent $500 of his own money to purchase three high-end, white dress shirts and had them monogrammed with color-accurate NRCS logos and had magnetic name tags made.

“I wanted to look sharp,” Valvo recalls.

On the job, Valvo says he worked to get socialized into the agency. District Conservationist Hanson was responsible for going through hundreds of pages of procedures manual with him — initialing every page — but only got through 20 pages. Valvo says he learned about his job responsibilities mostly from colleagues elsewhere and talking to old contacts back at Purdue.

Conflicts of interest?

Almost from the start, Valvo had serious conflicts with Hanson.

The first day, Valvo says, he commented about the cost of living. He says Hanson told him “This job pays more than you think.”

In his complaints, Valvo says a Cavalier farmer came into the office that first day. Lundquist introduced them, Valvo says. The farmer offered him $20 an hour “in cash” to help harvest sugar beets and potatoes on his farm. That’s a good deal and you should take it,” he says Lundquist told him, but he shouldn’t wait until harvest time to make a commitment.

“I asked (the farmer) if he was a participant in the 2008 farm bill,” Valvo says. “He said yes, he and his brothers — the whole family — were participants. I told him I’ve read a note from Paul King (state NRCS administrative officer) which says that’s unethical, and I can’t help you sir.’”

Valvo, says the farmer laughed and said, ‘They do it,’” Valvo remembers him saying, referring to Hanson and Lundquist.

“I told him, I’m 2,200 miles away from home, and I’m scared to death of what you just asked me to do,” he says.

Valvo says he repeated that he couldn’t accept any compensation, but perhaps occasionally could volunteer services for free. Valvo explained that the way he read the rules it would be a clear conflict of interest to receive pay from someone he potentially was regulating.

Terms of payment

The farmer told Agweek he remembers the discussion with Valvo. The farmer says he’d happened into in the NRCS office to acquire some trees and that he’d simply noticed Valvo as a new, “able body” in the office.

“During the beet harvest, like for a two-week period, it’s very hard to get help,” the farmer acknowledges, adding

nothing came of the discussion. “He didn’t get back to me.”

The farmer says he still can’t understand the conflict-of-interest issue. The Environmental Working Group says the farmer involved had Conservation Reserve Program contracts in 2009. The farmer says Valvo is “confused” about the terms of the offer. First, the hourly rate was “more like $16” and second, “I’d never say cash,” the farmer says, adding, “When you hire labor, you take out Social Security and Medicare.” The farmer claims he didn’t know whether either Lundquist or Hanson worked for any farmers at all.

In retrospect, the farmer says he probably wouldn’t have hired Valvo anyway, based on the farmer’s “gut feeling” from the conversation.

“It didn’t sound like he was competent,” he says. He couldn’t say why. The farmer demanded his name not be used in Agweek. Agweek withheld the name because the allegations, if true, would be criminal.

On Monday, April 5, Valvo’s notes say Lundquist, in Hanson’s presence, told Valvo he should get his Commercial Drivers License so he could haul sugar beets for some farmer. Valvo asked Hanson if this wasn’t a conflict of interest.

“You can do what you want on your own time,” Valvo remembers Hanson saying, but added Valvo might need to take annual leave to do the work.

On May 11, Hanson and Lundquist drove him to Drayton, N.D., for field scouting. They told him that if he felt uneasy about working for producers in Pembina County, they could get him work in other counties. He still declined, even though he and his wife had filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy the previous week.

Insubordination?

One of Valvo’s functions was signing off on Wetlands Reserve Program applications. To get an application approved, an agronomist was supposed to go to the farm, look at the soils and the plants growing on it and put together an NRCS contract proposal for an easement.

Valvo says Hanson asked him to approve WRP applications, before client folders with complete data including field surveys and land deeds were in. He says the cases involved $4.5 million in acquisition costs. Valvo says Hanson became angry with him for refusing to approve them.

By mid-June, Valvo says he became uncomfortable how this was done. He contacted the office of Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., to express concerns about ethics, including WRP procedures. He also contacted the FBI and the Office of Inspector General.

He says he met with Bill Heigaard, Pomeroy’s veteran’s and military affairs in Fargo, N.D. Heigaard is a former North Dakota gubernatorial candidate and a former banker in Langdon and Walhalla, N.D. Valvo remembers Heigaard telling him “nothing is perfect” and that he “should not be working with the administration of the 2008 U.S. farm bill,” and, “We need to get you transferred out of there,” Valvo recalls Heigaard saying.

On July 14, Hanson officially accused Valvo of insubordination, for failing to clear various applications in a timely fashion. On Aug. 4, Paul Sweeney, state conservationist since Jan. 1, 2010, sent Valvo a letter, saying the agency took his allegations “seriously” and that the matter was under review by USDA’s Office of Inspector General.

On Aug. 5, Valvo met with Arlen “Andy” Wingenbach, 41, Area I supervisor and assistant state conservationist in Devils Lake, N.D., to discuss the problems. (Wingenbach is in an NRCS family, with two brothers in the agency in the state.) Valvo says Wingenbach told him the reason he was hired was to “get the contracts out there and to keep them moving,” Valvo recalls. Regarding the survey data, he says Wingenbach told him, “Once we have the farmer’s name on the contract, then we’ll worry about doing the survey. I told him I didn’t realize it worked that way.”

While Wingenbach acknowledged the agency is short-staffed, he emphasized that the staff verifies “100 percent” of the contracts. Wingenbach asked him to “put in writing that he refused to sign off on the WRPs, but Valvo refused. He says Wingenbach promised more training to speed the process.

Wingenbach declined to answer Agweek’s questions about Valvo, referring all questions to Paul King in Bismarck, N.D.

Deteriorating fast

On Aug. 30, 2010, Valvo says Hanson gave him a negative performance evaluation, signed by Hanson. Valvo says Hanson admitted to him he didn’t write it and couldn’t pronounce or define some things he supposedly had composed. The same day, Valvo’s marriage with Linda officially ended.

Valvo says stress increasingly was affecting his health. In August, Valvo filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, asking for “reasonable accommodation” to monitor his diabetes, which was complicated by the fact that he had hepatitis C, a disease that is communicable by exposure to blood and body fluids.

Valvo contacted the Veterans Administration patient’s rights advocate in Fargo. On Sept. 2, he got a letter from Dr. Bhaswati “Mona” Chakravorty, a VA family practice doctor in Fargo. In the letter, she said the NRCS should afford Valvo a place at work to check his blood sugars at work.

In mid-September. Valvo asked for a federal “Alternative Dispute Resolution” process, to settle the medical issues. He’d hired Robert Fleming, a local attorney, who had earlier worked on his divorce, among other things. On Oct. 6, Valvo and Robert Fleming were in a six-hour ADR hearing in Grand Forks, N.D., with Wingenbach and Hanson. Valvo says he tried to give them a copy of Chakravorty’s letter, but they said they didn’t need to take it.

On Thursday, Oct. 7, Valvo went back in the office, without incident.

On Friday, Oct. 8, Valvo reported for work at about 6:45 a.m. — as usual, well ahead of his official “start time” of 8 a.m. He says his vision was blurry that morning; he’d checked his blood sugars at home and had just taken an insulin shot, which hadn’t yet taken effect.

On his way into the office building, he met Justin Brodina, the Cavalier County district conservationist in Langdon, N.D. Brodina’s message: “The bosses don’t want you here.” (Later, Valvo would find a note from Hanson, indicating Hanson expected Valvo to be at work Oct. 8.) Valvo asked Brodina for something in writing, and Brodina on the spot wrote something out on a vendor’s scratch-pad: “Tony, You are instructed to go home” and signed it.

The cops, the ambulance

Next, Cavalier city police officer Phil Wolf came in and told Valvo: “You are instructed to go home.”

Valvo asked if he could make a phone call. Granted that. Valvo says he was in the process of phoning A.J. Eilerman, an FBI special agent in Grand Forks, when he became ill and went to a knee and collapsed.

Valvo was taken out by ambulance — first to the hospital in Cavalier and then the cardiac care unit in Grand Forks. Doctors treated an acute coronary syndrome — a minor heart attack — and ran a catheter into his heart through a femoral artery. But by Sunday, Oct. 10, Valvo was released from the hospital. While he still was in the hospital, Todd Morgan, a reporter for the Walsh County (N.D.) Record, contacted him about the odd incident and to tell him he’d been blocked in acquiring a police report on the incident.

On Monday, Oct. 11, Valvo was back in Cavalier and says he felt the need to contact his office. He had no written notification that he was on administrative leave — just Brodina’s scrawled note — so he didn’t want to suffer consequences if he still was supposed to report for work.

He tried to phone the NRCS office, before 7 a.m., but no one answered. He drove himself to the office.

This time, Valvo was greeted by Chris Nelson, an NRCS area agronomist (later acting district conservationist). Nelson read aloud a letter addressed to Valvo, from Paul Sweeney, state conservationist. In the letter, dated Oct. 8, Sweeney told Valvo he’d been placed on administrative leave because of his Oct. 6 statements in the ADR hearing and because the agency’s concern that “exposure to your blood or bodily fluids could constitute a hazard to your co-workers or our clients.”

“That was the first time I knew that they didn’t want me on the property, permanently,” Valvo says.

It wasn’t until Oct. 12 that Valvo received his own copy of the letter, via registered mail at his apartment.

Week of lost jobs

From Nov. 1 to 5, Valvo was in Florida, signing over the house to his wife, who is working two jobs to keep the house. Meanwhile, Valvo was reporting blurry vision and more difficulty in controlling his diabetic condition.

On Nov. 2, Pomeroy was voted out of office. Valvo later was referred to Sen. Kent Conrad’s office.

In a Nov. 9 letter, State Conservationist Sweeney notified Valvo he was on administrative leave and would be terminated Nov. 12. Explanation: Valvo’s employment didn’t “promote the efficiency of the service,” Sweeney said, and Valvo “failed to demonstrate fitness for continued federal employment.” Sweeney cited numerous cases of insubordination and misconduct (changing the subject, shaking his fist, calling Hanson a “jackass”) and for refusing orders to leave the office Oct. 8.

Because he was fired for cause, Valvo didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

He appealed to the North Dakota State Work Force Development Office and on Feb. 17, the agency ruled in his favor, saying the NRCS had not proved “misconduct,” nor had he “failed to demonstrate fitness during the probationary period.”

Shortly after his firing, Valvo says he had a surprise. Morgan, the Walsh County Record reporter, told him his lawyer in the divorce case and in his medical appeal, Robert Fleming, is the son of City Attorney Neil Fleming, who had denied access to the police reports involving the Oct. 8 incident.

On Nov. 15, Valvo went to the office of Fleming, DuBois and Fleming, across the street from the county courthouse. He says he asked Robert Fleming to acquire the police report on his behalf. Robert Fleming had the report in his hand but refused to give it to him. “My father said you cannot have it,” Valvo recalls Robert saying.

But Robert said he’d ask again, so Valvo should come back the next day, when he repeated his father’s response. Valvo fired Robert Fleming with a formal letter.

Fleming & Fleming

On Nov. 17, Paul Sweeney, NRCS state conservationist, issued a news statement that the OIG found no “credible grounds for investigation” of Valvo’s complaints.

The matter had been referred back to the NRCS, which would “continue the inquiry,” but to that date had found “no evidence to support the allegations.” Valvo says an “amended” OIG investigation still is in play, and supplies correspondence from NRCS officials in Washington as evidence.

On Dec. 6, Valvo went to the North Dakota Attorney General’s office to help him get the police reports that Neil Fleming had refused. Mary Kae Kelsch, an assistant attorney general, investigated. In a Jan. 10, 2011, letter, Kelsch wrote to Valvo that Cavalier Police Chief Steve Ytterdahl told her City Attorney Neil Fleming had explained that he’d refused to release the police reports because Fleming hadn’t yet “reviewed” it. Kelsch wrote there was no justification for withholding the report because it was not complicated and “was not an active criminal investigation.”

In the report, Valvo learned that Wingenbach had told police that Valvo had a .45-caliber handgun “for sure” and that Pomeroy staff had indicated Valvo may be “suicidal.” Heigaard declined to verify this. Another Pomeroy source said the office shredded all such records when Pomeroy left office in January.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 12, Valvo filed a wrongful termination case with the federal Office of Special Counsel and its Merit Systems Protection Board. The case is pending.

On Jan. 19, 2011, Valvo filed a formal complaint against City Attorney Neil Fleming, with the state disciplinary board, a state bar association function, supervised by the North Dakota Supreme Court. In his written response to the allegations, Neil Fleming on April 18 said he’d initially refused reporter Morgan’s requests for “various reasons” and that he was “concerned that there was still an ongoing criminal investigation,” even though the police report specifically said there was no criminal activity. Valvo says the Walther PPK pistol he has legally owned since the 1980s was under lock and key back at his apartment, and no one ever questioned him about it. He notes that the gun was a possession he listed in his bankruptcy filings that he’d filed with the help of Robert Fleming.

Emails Robert?

Morgan had called Jack McDonald, attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association. McDonald called Neil Fleming and argued that the police report should be public. Fleming said he’d responded to Morgan’s request with a “redacted oral report,” that Morgan “appeared satisfied with that,” and that he didn’t know that Valvo was involved in Morgan’s request.

Neil Fleming later said he’d withheld the report because of his concerns about federal privacy rules, not criminality.

“Had Mr. Valvo himself requested this information, it would have been released to him as soon as it was determined that there would be no criminal charges brought in this matter,” Neil Fleming asserted.

Reached by Agweek, Neil Fleming declined to talk about Valvo’s case, or whether he’d ever received a request from Valvo, through his lawyer-son, Robert.

In one response, Neil Fleming acknowledged he did “not have an office e-mail” and that he responded to email sent through “my son Robert Fleming.”

Since Valvo’s firing, Hanson has left Pembina County to become district conservationist for Morrison County in Little Falls, Minn.

Paul Sweeney, who had been North Dakota state conservationist only since Jan. 1, 2010, on March 27, 2011, stepped aside and was named a “senior project leader,” working with the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative.” King says both changes were “lateral” and neither connected to the Valvo case.

It is difficult to evaluate how much Valvo’s personality figures into his firing, or his motivation for moving the issues forward.

Superiors say Valvo at times had been intimidating to coworkers. In one of his official responses, Valvo says he regards his second supervisor, Andy Wingenbach, as a “garden variety thug,” and says, “I solemnly swear to make the NRCS, and Wingenbach famous for their actions, and look forward to witnessing their defense in a federal court room.”

On April 29, Agweek asked Valvo if he’d give the publication permission to request his personnel file. In response, Valvo accused the reporter of an “autocratic” style and accusatory rhetoric and ended a conversation with, “You’re fired!”

An hour later, Valvo telephoned back to apologize and supply more documents.

Johannsen, an emeritus professor from Purdue who Valvo supplies as a professional and character reference, says he’s had similar exchanges with Valvo — harsh words, followed by apologies. Johannsen says Valvo is one who “tells it like it is and thinks about what he should have said afterward,” adding, he “takes the ethics part of a position really, really seriously” and “may not think of the way the ethics are defined, locally.”

Valvo says he’s been accepted into doctoral programs on the East Coast, but he hasn’t heard about funding, so isn’t sure how soon he’ll go — or where.

He’s been talking to his wife, he says, who still blames him for his “selfish” move to North Dakota. They’re still friends, he says. He says he’d like to get his doctorate to work in Washington for the U.S. Congressional Budget Office or some other federal oversight agency.

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