Politics & Government

Legislative committee declines to approve fish and wildlife commissioner's contract

FRANKFORT — A legislative oversight committee did not vote on the contract for the head of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Tuesday after questions arose about other possible investigations into the department that oversees hunting, fishing and wildlife management in Kentucky.

The Government Contract Review Committee voted to table the contract for Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Jonathan Gassett after it was revealed that some members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the department's oversight board and Gassett's employer, had not voted on the contract that included $134,000 base pay, an additional $50,000 in benefits and other payments not to exceed $218,000.

Legislators expressed frustration and confusion on why the committee had never approved or even seen Gassett's contract before Tuesday and questioned if the department was under investigation by other agencies.

Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, said Fish and Wildlife only provided the contract to the Government Contract Review committee because the legislature's Program Review and Investigations Committee, which was authorized to start a review of Fish and Wildlife in December, had asked for a copy of Gassett's contract and it was never produced. Yonts said after Tuesday's meeting that he understood two other agencies — including the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and the Office of Inspector General for the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet — could also be looking into possible improprieties at the department. Fish and Wildlife is attached to the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.

John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, attended Tuesday's Government Contract Review Committee but said he could neither confirm nor deny that the ethics watchdog agency was investigating Fish and Wildlife. Officials with the Tourism Cabinet did not return phone calls.

Margaret Everson, an attorney for the Fish and Wildlife Department who attended Tuesday's meeting, declined to comment on any possible investigation and referred all other questions to the spokesman for the tourism cabinet.

Program Review and Investigations — a legislative committee — passed a resolution in December to look at the structure of Fish and Wildlife and its independence in state government. Those legislative investigations typically take 12 months to complete.

Fish and Wildlife is unique in state government. It receives no general fund money. It is supported by sportsmen — through fishing and hunting licenses — or through federal funds. The nine fish and wildlife commissioners are appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear from a list of potential candidates provided by sportsmen. The nine-member Fish and Wildlife Commission is Gassett's boss.

In 2010, the legislature passed a bill that among other things would require the Senate to confirm all state commissioners and also required that commissioners of state agencies have contracts. Yet, Fish and Wildlife has not produced a contract for Government Contract Review to review until 2013, Yonts said.

Stuart Ray, president of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, said Gassett's original contract was approved by the commission in 2010. It was a multi-year contract. When the legislature asked that Gassett's contract be produced in 2013, the commission provided the contract that had been approved in 2010, Ray said.

But many legislators were concerned that the current nine-member commission had not even seen the contract that was before the Government Contract Review committee on Tuesday. Some of the members of the commission were on the board in 2010. Others were not and have not voted on the contract, said Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello.

Ray said that there was a commission meeting last Friday and that he wished those commissioners who had concerns would have said so at Friday's meeting.

"If they would have, I would have been more than willing to address it," Ray said.

The Government Contract Review Committee ultimately voted to table the contract until the Fish and Wildlife Commission had an opportunity to review it. Yonts tried unsuccessfully to get the committee to wait until any potential investigations were complete before approving Gassett's contract.

But there is a question if the legislative committee even has oversight over the Fish and Wildlife Department — because it receives no state general fund dollars and its boss answers to the nine-member commission, not legislators. Everson told the committee on Tuesday that they "were reviewing that legal question."

Gassett has been in the cross hairs of legislative leaders in the past over how the department handles elk hunting licenses and for other issues. Gassett, who has been with the department since 1999 and has served as commissioner since 2005, has also faced questions about his spending. A 2012 Associated Press story revealed that Gassett has spent $71,000 on travel since 2008, more than any other executive in state government, including the executive director of the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet. A 2012 Herald-Leader review showed that he charged the state $1,512 to stay overnight at conferences less than 60 miles from his Frankfort home from 2010 to 2012. Gassett 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.

Fish and Wildlife officials defended Gassett's travel expenses. Gassett was the head of several national organizations and must represent the state on all wildlife issues, which requires frequent travel, they said.

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