Fish and Wildlife official spent $1,512 on hotels less than 60 miles from home

FRANKFORT — The head of the agency that oversees hunting and fishing in Kentucky charged the state $1,512 to stay overnight at conferences less than 60 miles from his Frankfort home during the past two years.

Jonathan Gassett, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, stayed in Louisville and Lexington hotels on nine nights while attending seven conferences from January 2010 to February 2012.

In total, Gassett racked up $1,995 for rooms, meals, mileage and other expenses during the stays in Lexington and Louisville.

The Lexington Herald-Leader obtained Gassett's travel records under Kentucky's Open Records Act.

The Finance and Administration Cabinet, which oversees travel for executive branch employees, does not allow employees to stay overnight if the trip is 40 miles or less from an employee's home, said Cindy Lanham, a spokeswoman for the cabinet. However, a supervisor can overrule that regulation if it would create an economic hardship for the employee or if it was financially beneficial to the state, according to the state's travel regulations.

Fish and Wildlife officials defended Gassett's hotel stays in Lexington and Louisville on Tuesday, noting that he is a member of several organizations and must represent the state on a host of wildlife issues.

"He is frequently required to attend conferences and meetings both in and out of Kentucky to represent the agency and to address legislative, policy, promotional, funding and other issues," said Mark Marraccini, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife.

In January, Gassett spent $134.97 to stay at the Griffin Gate Marriott in Lexington for a conference that dealt with wildlife issues on reclaimed mine land. According to his travel receipts, Gassett drove 31 miles from Frankfort to attend the conference.

In July 2010, Gassett stayed two nights at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville for a deer management conference. In total, he billed the state $577.88 for the two-day stay.

Marraccini noted on Tuesday that Louisville is outside that 40-mile travel radius. Gassett charged the state to drive 50 miles from Frankfort to most of the Louisville conferences.

Gassett's stays in Louisville are normally only approved when Gassett serves in a leadership role for a particular meeting or event, Marraccini said.

For example, Gassett stayed two nights — July 9 and 10, 2010 — at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, where he was a speaker at the Quality Deer Management Conference.

On two of his three trips to Lexington, Gassett was serving in a leadership role for the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Marraccini said.

Fish and Wildlife is different from most state agencies. None of the money it receives comes from General Fund tax dollars. Its $50.5 million budget is made up of approximately $17.5 million from the federal government and $32.9 million from licenses and fees paid by Kentucky sportsmen.

Gassett is employed by a nine-member commission, which sets policy for Fish and Wildlife. Those commissioners are appointed by the governor from a list of names provided by sportsmen across the state.

Gassett's expenses are approved by the chairman of that commission, which has changed over the years, Marraccini said.

In total, Gassett reported expenses of $33,528 for in-state travel and for trips to Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Little Rock, Ark., and Indianapolis from January 2010 to February 2012.

On a June 2010 trip to Indianapolis, Gassett charged the state $84 to valet park during a three-night stay. Gassett was told there was "limited availability" for self-park options, Marraccini said.

Marraccini said approval of valet parking is "dependent on the situation, location and particular equipment required for the conference. Often there are substantial materials to load and unload at the door."

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