How a duck-hunting dispute became a Fish and Wildlife ethics scandal in Kentucky

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Two supervisors at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources interfered with an investigation of a member of the department’s oversight commission, a state ethics panel has charged.

One of the officers, Col. Rodney Coffey, who headed the law-enforcement division at the department, resigned after the Executive Branch Ethics Commission initiated charges Tuesday.

In the related investigation, Fish and Wildlife commissioner Jimmy B. Bevins was charged with obstructing legal hunting near his property in Franklin County, according to a court document and the file on the investigation.

Bevins allegedly threw out corn along South Elkhorn Creek so the area would be considered baited, making it illegal to hunt ducks in the baited area.

Bevins, who represents Central Kentucky on the commission, pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge this week in Franklin District Court. He was charged in December, 11 months after the alleged baiting incident.

Bevins, a lifelong outdoorsman, hunter and hunting-rights advocate, “would never intentionally interfere with another’s lawful hunting rights,” said his attorney, Charles E. Jones of Frankfort.

Bevins chairs the nine-member commission that sets policy for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Commission members are appointed by the governor based on nominations from hunters and anglers.

Gov. Matt Bevin appointed Bevins, who owns John Deere dealerships in Georgetown, Paris, Richmond and Mt. Sterling, to a four-term in August 2016, according to the Fish and Wildlife site.

The investigation at issue in the ethics charges started in January 2017, when Josh Robinson, a Fish and Wildlife conservation officer, responded to a call about people hunting ducks in the creek near Bevins’ home.

Bevins had talked with Capt. Richard L. Skaggs, one of Robinson’s superviors at Fish and Wildlife, the month before about people hunting too close to his house and others, according to a memo from Skaggs.

Bevins said people had fired guns as close as 40 yards from his house.

Skaggs said Bevins asked whether there would be anything wrong with feeding wildlife on his property.

Skags told him that there wouldn’t be any problem with that, but he told Bevins he “needed to be mindful” that throwing out corn to stop hunting could be considered obstruction, especially if he did so on someone else’s property, according to the statement.

Bevins said he would only put feed on his property.

“He said, ‘I am feeding ducks on my property, and that is my story and I am sticking to it,’” Skaggs’ statement said of Bevins.

On Jan. 8 last year, Bevins again reported that hunters were shooting in the creek and were too close to his house. That’s the report Robinson went to check on.

The report said Robinson found cracked corn on the ground on Bevins’ property.

Robinson said in the case summary that one hunter said a friend had told him Bevins was “bragging about throwing out corn to keep guys from duck hunting.”

Statements filed in the investigation indicate that Robinson suspected that Bevins had baited the area to prevent hunting, and that Robinson thought supervisors were discouraging him from pursuing a charge because of Bevins’ position with the department.

However, Skaggs and another supervisor at the scene said they told Robinson that wasn’t true.

Skaggs said in a memo that there were shortcomings in Robinson’s investigation.

Skaggs said there would be a problem proving that Bevins intended to block hunters, based on his earlier statement about feeding wildlife for viewing purposes.

Skaggs told Coffey, his supervisor, that Robinson was being “highly unreasonable,” according to a statement from Coffey.

Federal authorities reviewed the case at Robinson’s request but decided there was no federal violation.

There was little action in the state case for months, but the issue smoldered behind the scenes and ultimately came to the attention of the ethics commission, which opened a preliminary investigation in July.

The ethics commission filed initiating orders this week with three charges against Coffey, who was sheriff in Menifee County for many years before going to work for the department, and one charge against Skaggs.

One charge said Coffey interfered with a conservation officer’s investigation of a Fish and Wildlife commissioner by prohibiting the officer from referring the case to the appropriate prosecutor.

That violated a law that bars a public servant from using his position to create privileges, exemptions or advantages for himself or others, and other provisions, the ethics commission charged.

The commission also charged Coffey with interfering with merit-hiring laws. He allegedly had an employee rescind disqualification notices to 22 applicants to “repay a favor,” and had an employee re-interview an applicant who had not been recommended for hiring.

The charges didn’t include further detail on any of the alleged violations.

Kathryn H. Gabhart, executive director of the commission, said she couldn’t release any additional information.

Coffey resigned Wednesday, the day after the charges were filed, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Mark Marraccini said.

The charge against Skaggs said he engaged in a pattern of conduct interfering with an officer’s investigation of a Fish and Wildlife commissioner in an attempt to influence the decision on referring the matter to a prosecutor, thereby attempting to create or secure special treatment for the commissioner.

Efforts to reach Coffey and Skaggs on Thursday were unsuccessful.

They can respond to the allegations before the commission. If so, a state hearing officer will decide whether the officers committed violations.

Violations would be punishable by a reprimand, a fine of $5,000 for each count, or a recommendation for personnel action by Fish and Wildlife, including termination, Gabhart said.