Increase ethics, oversight at agency: Fish and Wildlife's misuse of funds stunning


Two recent reports about the bad behavior of employees and members of the commission that allegedly oversees the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources draw a picture that looks more like a private men's hunting and fishing club than a state agency.

The General Assembly, now in session, should take action to bring the agency back into the government fold.

The charges leveled by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission include:

■ Stocking the private ponds of commissioners and their friends with state-owned fish.

■ Using department employees to run private errands for Jon Gassett, the agency's former chief, and pump water out of the basement of his home.

■ Using the agency FedEx account to ship Gassett's alligator skin to a taxidermist in Georgia

■ Another agency official promising a female employee special treatment if she would show him her breasts.

The state Office of Inspector General for Shared Services last month issued a 59-page report on the result of its investigation into the agency. Among other things, it found:

■ Although he did not have a permit to do so, while on duty Gassett carried concealed weapons issued by the department, including a snub-nosed revolver in an ankle holster.

■ Hank Patton, hired by Gassett to supervise the agency's law enforcement officers, had no law enforcement training himself.

■ All members of the oversight commission got preferential treatment for duck hunting at a wildlife management area.

■ Employees, including Gassett and Patton, used a state-operated workshop to work on personal projects.

■ Inmates were regularly left unsupervised in the workshop.

■ Employees said they felt pressured to conceal inappropriate activities.

All in all, it's a picture of a rogue agency where bosses packing heat pretty much got what they wanted and a compliant, even complicit, oversight commission was happy to go along.

Remarkably, the members of the commission are not subject to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission as are the employees.

So, those who received free fish for their ponds, and those of their buddies, and who got special access to hunting or other favors, cannot be fined.

That needs to change for this and other commissions that oversee public agencies. Anyone who accepts a position of public trust must be held accountable when that trust is violated.

In the meantime, the governor, who appoints commissioners from nominations made by sportsmen, can remove ethics violators from their posts, and he should.

There should also be some rethinking of how the board is constituted to ensure independent voices and represent more diverse constituencies.

The General Assembly should also require answers from the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, where the agency is located.

While Fish and Wildlife does not receive General Fund money, relying instead on federal grants and fees from hunting and fishing licenses, it is an agency of the state and must have the same oversight as any other.

Clearly there were enormous gaps. Employees and commissioners had either limited training in ethics codes and state laws about the use of public funds and property, or chose to disregard them.

Employees describe an atmosphere of intimidation and harassment with nowhere outside the agency to report their grievances.

Someone needs to explain in public how a state agency could operate in this ethical vacuum, and what's being done to assure it won't happen again.