Head of Kentucky wildlife resources department to step down amid investigation

jbrammer@herald-leader.comSeptember 6, 2013 

Wildlife Commissioner Resigns

Former Kentucky Wildlife Commissioner Jonathan Gassett talked to lawmakers in Frankfort. Gassett resigned as the agency is being investigated over concerns about spending and personnel decisions. Gassett submitted a letter of resignation Thursday evening to commission chairman Stuart Ray. (AP Photo/Roger Alford)

AP

FRANKFORT — Jon Gassett is leaving as head of the state Fish and Wildlife Resources Department for another job during an investigation of the agency's spending and personnel decisions.

Gassett, who has headed the department since 2005, said in a letter Thursday afternoon to department officials and colleagues that he has accepted a job with the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute. His departure date is Sept. 20.

Gassett said he is leaving the state agency on "solid footing," but Dick Brown, a spokesman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Public Protection, said an inspector general's investigation into the wildlife department's spending and personnel decisions continues. The agency oversees hunting and fishing licenses, and various conservation programs.

Brown did not elaborate.

The Associated Press reported last year that Gassett had spent more than $71,000 to attend meetings in various cities since 2008, more than anyone else in the Beshear administration.

However, a legislative inquiry last month by the Program Review and Investigations Committee revealed no wrongdoing. It recommended that the wildlife agency's nine-member commission adopt bylaws regarding what items should be brought for its approval.

The department, which receives no General Fund tax dollars, is regularly audited by state and federal offices, and it complies with regulations, Tosha Fraley, an economist with the Legislative Research Commission, told the legislative committee.

Lawmakers, notably Democratic Rep. Brent Yonts of Greenville, have expressed misgivings about spending and personnel decisions at the department, but Gassett said he thought the committee's report would help exonerate the agency.

Gassett, whose annual salary is $134,352, has worked under a contract for three years, but the contract has not been approved by lawmakers. Gassett was not immediately available for comment Friday.

The department also is reportedly under investigation by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission. Commission director John Steffen said Friday that he couldn't confirm or deny any investigation.

Stuart Ray of Anchorage, chairman of the nine-member fish and wildlife commission, said deputy commissioner Benjy T. Kinman of Frankfort will oversee the department until a successor for Gassett is named.

The commission will meet within the next three weeks to begin the search for a new commissioner, Ray said. Speed was not an issue because of Kinman's knowledge of the department, Ray said.

He said Gassett "served the department very well," helping Kentucky obtain the largest population of elk — more than 10,000 — east of the Rocky Mountains.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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