Two former state employees pay $10,000 fine each for ethics violations

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comDecember 3, 2012 

FRANKFORT — Two former state employees have agreed to each pay a $10,000 fine for using their official positions in state government to boost their private businesses, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission released Monday.

Dennis Sharon, a former Department of Fish and Wildlife conservation officer, agreed to pay the $10,000 fine for a host of ethics violations surrounding his private paddlefish business. Sharon was a conservation officer at the same time that he allegedly earned as much as $40,000 over two years selling paddlefish roe — or caviar — commercially.

Sharon no longer works for Fish and Wildlife, according to state documents.

Michael Fitzgerald, a former Department of Agriculture employee, also agreed to pay a $10,000 fine for nine counts of violating state ethics rules for allegedly working as a private inspector for out-of-state organic food producers while working as agriculture marketing supervisor over the department's organic program. Fitzgerald also admitted that he falsified his supervisor's signature on some documents. Fitzgerald no longer works for the Department of Agriculture.

The $10,000 fines were the highest fine ever paid by anyone who has violated the state's ethics rules, said John Steffen, the executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

According to the information provided by the commission, Sharon was charged by Indiana Department of Natural Resource officials for fishing for paddlefish in restricted waters earlier this year. According to the charges, Sharon knew where commercial fishermen were not allowed to set their nets, and he set them inside the restricted zone anyway. He also threatened other commercial fisherman with citations for placing their nets too close to his own.

When Indiana conservation officers found Sharon fishing in restricted waters at the mouth of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers in Carrollton, Sharon told the Indiana officers that he had been given permission to do so by his superior officers and his department would defend him in court, which was not true.

Sharon was charged by Indiana officials in March 2012 in Switzerland County, according to the settlement agreement approved by the commission on Monday. In addition, Sharon sold 464 pounds of paddlefish roe to a man he later arrested. The commission alleged that Sharon also tried to interfere with criminal investigations of other commercial fisherman.

Sharon was fired from Fish and Wildlife but is appealing his termination, according to state documents. According to public records, Sharon made $37,448 a year as a conservation officer.

Fitzgerald oversaw the Department of Agriculture's organic program during former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer's tenure. The department relies on a private company to certify out-of-state products as organic. Fitzgerald worked for a company that did those certifications.

According to the ethics commission charges, Fitzgerald would often perform these inspections while using the state vehicle. Moreover, the commission found that Fitzgerald would forge his supervisor's signature on state documents certifying for his private clients that the product was organic.

Fitzgerald left the agency in April after current Ag Commissioner James Comer took over in January. According to public documents, Fitzgerald made $42,035 a year.

Also on Monday, the commission approved a settlement agreement with Geri Murphy, a former social worker who pleaded guilty in May to tampering with public records and is serving a five-year sentence. Murphy agreed to pay a $1,750 penalty for falsifying reports saying that she had performed investigations of abuse and neglect of children when she had not performed the investigations. Murphy, of Lawrenceburg, admitted that she erroneously reported that child abuse and neglect had not occurred in nine different cases.

Beth Musgrave: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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