Politics & Government

Lawsuit shines a light on issues with Fish and Wildlife department

A lawsuit has brought to light criticisms of the head of Kentucky's Department of Fish and Wildlife and prompted the legislature to ask for an investigation of an agency that some say may be out of control.

Earlier this month, a legislative committee turned down a request by Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Jonathan Gassett to pay his personal legal expenses to defend a lawsuit brought by Louisville radio talk show host James Strader.

At that same meeting, the committee — Government Contract Review — voted unanimously to send the lawsuit to Attorney General Jack Conway's office for further investigation. The suit alleges Gassett retaliated against Strader for reporting on alleged improprieties at the department.

A spokeswoman said the attorney general's office is reviewing the request but declined further comment.

"In reviewing the allegations, it looks like personal bad behavior," said Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, a member of the contract review committee. "It looks like an agency out of control."

But Gassett, in a written statement, defended Fish and Wildlife and said the agency — which is tasked with enforcing the state's wildlife statutes — must balance a multitude of interests. "I believe we do a good job of being responsive, balancing these interests and carrying out the duties prescribed by the law and regulations."

The request for an attorney general's investigation is the latest skirmish between Fish and Wildlife and the legislature. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill that calls for more oversight of the agency and an annual audit of the department, which oversees a host of wildlife programs. State Auditor Crit Luallen's detailed financial audit will probably be released in the spring.

Strader sued Gassett in January, both in his official capacity and also as a private citizen. Tax money will be used to pay for Gassett's defense as a public official and to defend the agency, as is common in legal cases involving state agencies. However, the committee voted not to pay for Gassett's personal legal bills, and a spokesman said Fish and Wildlife money will not be used to pay them.

Strader, a former columnist for the Courier-Journal in Louisville and a radio talk show host on WHAS 840-AM, said Gassett retaliated against him after Strader reported about a host of problems at Fish and Wildlife on his show. They included that Gassett, before he was appointed commissioner, had issued elk hunting permits even though then-Gov. Paul Patton had prohibited them, that a commission board member had pleaded guilty to hunting elk out of season and that the department's self-reporting system for deer harvesting was used to circumvent game limits.

Strader said Gassett retaliated against him by not allowing Fish and Wildlife personnel on his radio program and not allowing the department's staff to set up a booth at Strader's fish and wildlife expo, meaning hunting licenses couldn't be sold there.

Fish and Wildlife eventually started its own competing radio program, the lawsuit said, and a son of one of the Fish and Wildlife board members set up a competing expo, Strader alleges.

Gassett, who has headed the agency since 2005, denied all of Strader's allegations and asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.

"Missing from the allegation is any factual claim that the plaintiff is being denied access to information generally available to other members of the press in retaliation for his reporting," lawyers for Gassett and the department said in court documents.

Strader's lawyer, Kevan Doran, said a ruling on the motion to dismiss is pending in federal court. He declined to comment on the legislature's decision to send the lawsuit to the attorney general for review.

'Out of control'

Legislators said the lawsuit's allegations are serious and they have concerns that Gassett may have gone too far.

Sen. Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, is co-chair of the Government Contract Review Committee. "If any of these allegations are true, there could be some criminal charges filed," McGaha said.

Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville, was one of the co-sponsors of Senate Bill 64 that passed the Senate and House overwhelmingly in March.

It calls for term limits of eight years for Fish and Wildlife board members, some of whom have served for more than 20 years. It would also require Senate confirmation of new board members and calls for more oversight of Gassett's employment contract with the state.

Legislators hope the changes will make the agency more responsive.

Fish and Wildlife is unique in state government. There is little executive or legislative control of the agency. The commissioner is selected by a nine-member board. The governor cannot remove him. The department is attached to the tourism cabinet only for planning and organizational purposes.

The agency receives no state tax money. Its $50 million budget is funded through hunting and fishing licenses and fees or federal grants.

Pendleton said there has been ongoing concern about how the department's money — particularly the $32 million that sportsmen pay in fees and licenses — is spent.

"It's not a Democrat or a Republican thing," Pendleton said of the acrimony between the legislature and the department.

"A lot of us were getting a lot of complaints from the sportsmen and the general public, and (the department) was totally unresponsive. ... A lot of us felt that they were totally out of control."

Gassett said in a written statement he thinks the department is responsive to the public, the legislature, hunters and other sportsmen.

There have been other questions about Gassett and whether his outside businesses conflict with his official duties. Gassett has a consulting company, Southern Wildlife Resources, and is also employed as a consultant for Greenwood Land Co., a Georgia-based land management company.

Gil Lawson, a spokesman for the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said Southern Wildlife, which offers services similar to Fish and Wildlife, does not operate in Kentucky. And Gassett only does real estate transactions with Greenwood, he said.

John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the ethics watchdog of state government, said Gassett can be employed outside of state government. "But you have to be careful that you can't use anything from your official position to further your private business interests," he said.

Gassett provided the Herald-Leader with a May 2010 letter from the ethics commission, which had investigated a complaint alleging Gassett had improperly used the department's resources in his private businesses. The commission said Gassett did not appear to be using his job for personal gain.

Complaints investigated

Lawson said the agency has received state and federal audits and that no problems have been found. And the agency is doing more to be responsive to the legislative and the general public, he said.

In June, Tourism Cabinet Secretary Marcheta Sparrow and Gassett sent letters to legislators saying the department was going to do more to address concerns.

The agency holds town hall-style meetings and attends meetings of sportsmen nearly every month.

"The commissioner feels like they are paying attention to concerns and addressing complaints when they occur," Lawson said.

Pendleton said that since the legislation was passed, the number of complaints about the department have declined.

"I have not had any serious complaints in the past six months," Pendleton said.