Politics & Government

Lawmakers approve controversial Fish and Wildlife insider hired to lead agency

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Rich Storm gets contract approval

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Rich Storm's employment contract was approved despite an "optics problem."
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Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Rich Storm's employment contract was approved despite an "optics problem."

A panel of lawmakers voted to approve the employment contract of an insider to lead the troubled Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department, despite harsh criticism of the process that hired him.

“The optics are bad,” said Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, who questioned how Rich Storm, who chaired the Fish and Wildlife Commission and interviewed finalists for the commissioner’s job, became commissioner himself.

Lawmakers on the Government Contract Review Committee approved the $210,993 contract in a 5-2 vote. Hornback and Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, who chairs the committee, were the only no votes.

Meredith said public opinion sees Fish and Wildlife as an “good old boys network.”

“We have done nothing to dispel that,” he said. “We want to fix the problems and we know there are problems in Fish and Wildlife. There is a credibility issue.”

Officials from Fish and Wildlife were joined by Regina Stivers, deputy secretary of the Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet, which oversees FIsh and Wildlife. Misty Judy, the human resources director for the department, said that Storm was not on the search committee for the new director while he served as chairman of the commission that directs Fish and Wildlife.

However, the entire commission interviewed eight candidates before choosing three finalists. At that point, Storm asked to be included in the search and recused himself from his role as commission chairman.

That point seemed to sway lawmakers, who said they’d heard nothing but good opinions about Storm personally.

“The one overriding point that I took from numerous contacts was that if there was an individual to clean up and agency that had lost the way, this was the individual,” said Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington.

In December, state auditor Mike Harmon found numerous violations in state and federal law in how money was spent at Fish and Wildlife.

Storm, who attended the Tuesday meeting, said he understood the optics problem.

“I didn’t have the intention to apply for this job initially, and I was asked by a commission member,” he said. “I’m excited to lead this agency. “

Linda Blackford is an education and accountability reporter. She has covered K-12, higher education and other topics for the past 20 years at the Herald-Leader.