Former fish and wildlife commissioner faces ethics charges for allegedly abusing his office

jcheves@herald-leader.comJanuary 27, 2014 

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 — Kentucky's former commissioner of Fish and Wildlife Resources faces nine counts of ethics violations for allegedly abusing his office from 2006 to 2013.

Jonathan Gassett allegedly ordered state employees to do his personal errands during work hours, improperly accepted Kentucky Derby passes for his personal benefit, and took artwork and various supplies meant for state use, according to the Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

Gassett resigned from his $134,352-a-year job at the Fish and Wildlife Resources Department in September, three months before the allegations first were disclosed in a report by a state inspector general.

Gassett has 20 days to reply to the ethics commission, which then plans to schedule a hearing on the civil charges. The ethics commission may issue a variety of penalties, including fines.

Luke Morgan, Gassett's attorney, had no comment Monday except to say his client had met with the ethics commission's staff to explain each of the allegations and provide documents to support his version of events.

The Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, to which Fish and Wildlife Resources is attached, is reviewing the ethics charges, spokesman Gil Lawson said.

The ethics commission charged three other Fish and Wildlife Resources officials Monday: Deputy Commissioner Benjy Kinman, who remains in his post; former maintenance shop supervisor Jon Akers, who now works in the agency's engineering division; and Kenneth "Scott" King, former assistant director for administrative services.

Kinman did not return a message seeking comment Monday evening. Efforts to locate Akers and King for comment were unsuccessful.

Fish and Wildlife Resources has been a source of controversy at the state Capitol for years, with lawmakers asking why the agency gets so little oversight as it spends millions of dollars to buy land and promote outdoor activities. Gassett answered to a nine-member board of district commissioners that meets a few times a year, not to a cabinet secretary or the governor.

According to the ethics commission, Gassett frequently used state resources for his own benefit. In the ethics charges, it alleges:

■ In the winter of 2009-10, Gassett ordered state employees during work hours to use state vehicles and equipment to pump out the flooded basement of his Franklin County home.

■ From 2006 to 2011, Gassett ordered a state employee in the Fish and Wildlife Resources woodshop to do personal chores for him, such as repairing his canoe and cutting pieces of a countertop for his home.

■ From 2008 to 2011, Gassett ordered state employees during work hours to use a state vehicle to pick up building materials he purchased from a Lexington business. The materials were stored at the agency's woodshop, then taken to Gassett's home.

■ In 2009, Gassett took for his personal use 15 prints of artwork, valued at $35 each, from a larger set created for a Fish and Wildlife Resources fundraiser.

■ In 2012, Gassett ordered a state employee to stop what he was doing at work so he could inspect a house that Gassett thought he might buy. The employee ended up having to use personal leave time for the home inspection; Gassett did not compensate him.

■ During 2012 and 2013, Gassett used Fish and Wildlife Resources' FedEx account to send the skin of a Florida alligator he killed to a taxidermist in Georgia.

■ In 2013, Gassett told state employees to get him a gallon of the restricted-use pesticide rotenone through a state purchasing contract, which he then took for his own use.

■ In 2013, Gassett helped a hunting buddy who owned a Frankfort communications business. Gassett brought his friend to a meeting between Kentucky State Police and Fish and Wildlife Resources where the potential purchase of radio systems was discussed. No other vendor was invited to attend the meeting.

■ In 2011 and 2012, Gassett used his official position to convince Kentucky State Police to give him Kentucky Derby passes that allowed him access to multiple levels of Churchill Downs. Gassett used the passes for his personal pleasure, not for work.

Kinman, who remains at the agency as deputy commissioner, is charged with helping Gassett with the flooded basement and the pesticide, with ordering a state employee during work hours to take fish from a state fish hatchery and move them to a private pond in Somerset owned by a Fish and Wildlife Resources commission member, and with delivering more state fish to a private pond in Lawrenceburg owned by the friend of a commission member.

Akers is charged with using the Fish and Wildlife Resources woodshop and its supplies for his personal tasks, taking a pair of seized antlers for his own use, and helping colleagues to use the woodshop for their own household and sporting chores.

King is charged with sexually harassing women who worked under him, making lewd comments about their bodies, and telling them to show him their breasts or wear short skirts and high heels if they wanted favorable treatment from him. King also is charged with using a state-owned John Deere tractor, purchased with federal funds, to improve privately owned land where he hunted during his spare time. When King damaged the tractor, he used more federal funds to have it repaired, the ethics commission alleges.

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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