Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

December 17, 2013

Changes needed

Probe uncovers problems in fish and wildlife agency

The Independent

ASHLAND — The findings of a months-long investigation of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources by the state Office of Inspector General should anger everyone who purchases a Kentucky hunting and fishing license. Why? Because revenue from the sale of those licenses provide most of the support for fish and wildlife resources and the  inspector general found  some of that money was being misused

How? The inspector general uncovered instances in which Fish and Wildlife managers used their influence to have free fish delivered to private ponds, a perk that isn’t available to the general public and a service for which commercial fishing ponds pay.

“We fully intend to address the issues raised in the report’s findings to ensure that all policies and procedures are followed and that the integrity of the department is maintained,” said Stuart Ray, chairman of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nine-member board that oversees the agency.

Former Wildlife Commissioner Jonathan Gassett resigned in September while the investigation was under way. Perhaps he realized the probe would reveal misuse of revenue under his watch. The investigation found in one instance, state employees were used on state time in a state vehicle to pick up building materials for the personal use of Gassett.

Gassett has declined to make any comments regarding inspector general’s report until he has had time to review the findings with his lawyer and take “any necessary action.”

Bill Haycraft, former president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen and a longtime critic of the Fish and Wildlife agency, said he wasn’t surprised by the findings. “We knew that this sort of thing was going on, but you couldn’t prove it,” Haycraft said.

For the record, Gassett said in September he was leaving the agency to take a job with the Wildlife Management Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

The inspector general said rank-and-file employees of the agency also worked at Gassett’s house, using agency pumps and fans to remove water from a flooded crawlspace.

“They had little means by which to object to an order given to them by a supervisor, even though some of the employees had reservations about the work they were being directed to do,” the inspector general wrote in a 59-page report. “There was also present the fear of retaliation for refusal to follow a manager’s directive.”

The inspector general’s office called for “appropriate disciplinary action” to be considered against people found to have violated agency regulations or state laws and called for steps to be taken to protect employees who cooperated in the investigation against retaliation.

From our vantage point,  the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources does an excellent job of setting hunting seasons in the state and controlling the number of animals hunters can kill. It has managed the state elk herd so well that elk hunting now is something of a tourist attraction in Kentucky. The regulations established by this agency help assure that no wildlife will be overhunted or not hunted enough.

However, none of the good things the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources does is an excuse for the kind of abuses listed by the inspector general.

From those findings, we can only conclude Gasset’s departure was good riddance. It now is imperative that the Fish and Wildlife Commission take steps to discipline those who violated laws and regulations and to make the necessary changes to assure they never happen again.