FRANKFORT — Gregory K. Johnson, a retired Natural Resources Conservation Service executive with past experience in Kentucky, is the new commissioner of the embattled state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
At a specially called meeting Friday, seven commission members unanimously approved Johnson to replace Jonathan Gassett, who resigned last September during an investigation of his 14-year tenure by the Office of Inspector General.
One commission member was absent, and another commission seat is vacant.
In March, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission fined Gassett $7,500 for nine counts of ethics violations, including ordering state workers to pump out the flooded basement of his house and using the state's contract with FedEx to ship the skin of an alligator he had killed to a taxidermist in Georgia.
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Gassett's attorney, Luke Morgan, said any mistakes Gassett made were "unintentional and minor in scope."
Johnson, 58, told reporters Friday that he has read the inspector general's report and welcomes positive input. He said his management style will be one of passion, humility and servant-leadership.
Johnson will begin work May 16. A lifetime hunter, angler and outdoorsman, he will become the eighth commissioner in the department's 70-year history.
His base salary will be $125,000 a year. He signed two employment contracts Friday — one for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and another for the next two years with a two-year renewal option.
Commission chairman Stuart Ray said the commission conducted a six-month nationwide search "to find the right person to head one of this country's premier fish and wildlife agencies, and that is precisely what we accomplished."
The fish and wildlife department is an agency of the state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. It is responsible for the conservation of fish and wildlife resources and for boating safety in the state.
Financial support of the department comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, federal grants and other receipts. It receives no money from the state General Fund.
The department has an annual budget of about $50 million and employs about 500 people.
Johnson, a native of the northern Illinois farming community of Wasco, is a 1979 graduate of Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor's degree in wildlife management and minors in fisheries biology and chemistry.
Johnson retired in 2011 after more than 30 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Natural Resources Conservation Service. The NRCS, formerly the Soil Conservation Service, assists farmers and other landowners, including government and other federal agencies, in maintaining healthy and productive working landscapes.
He began his career with the U.S. Forest Service research station in Berea, working with Kentucky and Appalachian coal companies to reclaim strip mines.
He also worked as a district conservationist for the NRCS for Wayne, McCreary and Russell counties. In 1990, he assumed area conservationist duties for 38 counties and administrative responsibilities for 27 field offices. He later was the NRCS state resource specialist for Kentucky and spent eight years in the same role for the eight-state Midwest region.
In 2004, Johnson went to Washington to work for the USDA's Senior Executive Development Program. He held various technical and financial roles there until he retired in 2011. Since July 2012, he has been director of the Southeast Region for the Soil and Water Conservation Society in Ankeny, Iowa.
Johnson said he always wanted to return to Kentucky.
"Kentucky's hunting and fishing heritage is among the richest anywhere," he said. "I am excited to become a part of that. This agency's wildlife and fisheries successes are well recognized among professionals everywhere, and I am looking forward to continuing and building upon those traditions."
Johnson and his wife, Melynda, will live in Lexington. His daughter, Kendra, is a Tates Creek Middle School teacher and girls' basketball coach. His son, Ryan, is completing the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training Academy at EKU to become a University of Kentucky police officer.