Fish and Wildlife chief's departure ends flak over contract but not investigations and questions

09/06/2013 03:33 PM

Jonathan Gassett’s resignation Thursday as Kentucky’s fish and wildlife commissioner comes in the wake of two investigations into his conduct, questions about his employment contract and extensive travel, and complaints of intimidation from former employees.

Gassett announced his resignation, effective September 20, with a letter addressed to “KDFWR colleagues and friends” which Pure Politics was first to report Thursday night. Gassett said he’s taking a job with the Wildlife Management Institute , a non-profit organization closely tied to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies of which Gassett was affiliated as Kentucky’s commissioner.

Gassett’s move ends his eight-year tenure as the leader of the agency, which handles hunting and fishing licenses and operates largely on fees paid by Kentucky sportsmen and federal grants. It also puts to rest at least one controversy that has been dogging Gassett in recent months — the status of his employment contract.

Other controversies involving Gassett continue to simmer. Through interviews with former Fish and Wildlife Department officials and after a review of hundreds of pages of documents, questions remain about the culture in the department, Gassett’s leadership style and accountability of the agency’s resources. In fact, two state investigations will continue even in the wake of Gassett’s departure.

Gassett didn’t return multiple messages left by Pure Politics on Thursday and Friday.

A spokesperson for the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, to which the agency is attached, said in a brief statement Friday that state officials wish Gassett “the best in his future endeavors.”

“Outdoor sports such as hunting and fishing have always been a strong Kentucky tradition, and we know that the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources will continue their excellent service during this time of transition,” said Gil Lawson, the spokesperson for the cabinet.

About to have pay cut off?

Gassett may have seen the writing on the wall about his future with the agency after a June meeting of the legislature’s Government Contract Review Committee.

Lawmakers peppered the chairman of the fish and wildlife commission with questions about why Gassett failed over the last three years to file his employment contract with the fish and wildlife commission for whom he works, as well as the state Finance and Administration Cabinet and the legislature for approval.

Essentially, Gassett was serving without a properly-approved contract, as Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, said in the meeting.

Gassett continued to operate under an unapproved contract calling for him to make $218,000 a year in salary, bonuses and other benefits, according to contract provided to the legislative committee. That unapproved contract was drafted to run through June 2014, said Lawson, spokesperson for the tourism cabinet.

As a result, Gassett might soon have been cut off from getting a paycheck.

Officials at the Kentucky Treasury Department were aware of the of the questions about the contract and were in the process of “looking into” whether Gassett should still receive a paycheck, said Treasury spokesman Mark Pfeiffer.

intimidation and retaliation

Former department employees also told Pure Politics about working conditions within the agency, which led to the ouster of one merit employee and alleged retaliation against a journalist for comments said on air.

Jennie Richardson left the Department of Fish and Wildlife last year after nearly 11 years of service as the state coordinator for the department’s Archery in the Schools Program.

Richardson resigned after her duties were repeatedly changed and eventually eliminated.

While Richardson declined to comment on camera, she did confirm to Pure Politics that she felt “pressured” and “pushed out” of the department by then-Deputy Commissioner Roy Grimes with the authorization of Gassett.

Former “Kentucky Afield” radio show host, Russ Kennedy, worked closely with Richardson as the treasurer on the archery program’s board – before it was disbanded by Grimes. Here’s what Kennedy told Pure Politics:

Richardson, a former teacher, recruited schools to participate in the National Archery in Schools Program and grew it into what it is today.

Kennedy, who was working part-time for the department, resigned in protest of
Richardson’s ouster in the department.

“At that time, I said ‘Eh, I’m not sure I want to do this anymore. I’m a PR, I’m a mouth-piece, I’m a spokesman for an agency that just did something that I find horrendous,’” Kennedy said.

In Kennedy’s letter to Gassett after his resignation he said he was “embarrassed” to be affiliated with the agency, which he said forced Richardson out.

“For the first time in my life I was hurt, I was embarrassed and maybe part of me wanted to make a statement,” he said.

Settled retaliation suit

That’s not the first time the way Gassett ran the department has come under fire. The host of 84 WHAS radio show ‘Outdoors with Jim Stader’ sued Gassett both in his official capacity and as a private citizen in 2010 .

Strader, a former Courier-Journal columnist, said Gassett retaliated against him after he spoke on air about problems within the department. Strader operated a fish and wildlife expo at which the Fish and Wildlife Department refused to sell hunting and fishing licenses, according to Strader’s lawsuit. And Strader claimed Gassett wouldn’t allow department personnel on his radio program.

A federal judge ruled against Strader in 2012. In the ruling, the judge said that Strader couldn’t prove damages.

However, Strader appealed the ruling on the basis that the court did not consider how Gassett’s actions affected Strader’s First Amendment rights. Strader and Gassett settled the case out of court, according to documents obtained by Pure Politics.

A stipulation of the settlement is that neither Strader nor Gassett can talk about what happened.

Open investigations

Amid all this, two state agencies are investigating Gassett, although the specific nature of the probes haven’t become public.

The office of inspector general for the state’s Labor, Public Protection and Energy and Environments Cabinet, is investigating Gassett. A spokesperson says the resignation will not stop that investigation.

“We’re still in the process of our investigation,” Dick Brown, spokesman for the Office of Inspector General, said in a phone interview. “Nothing has changed … We’re aware of his resignation.”

He offered no timeline for the conclusion of the investigation.

Yonts, in the June legislative committee, also alluded to an Executive Branch Ethics Commission investigation. But the ethics commission cannot confirm or deny any active investigation.

Gassett’s resignation, according to the ethics commission procedures, also won’t affect the progress of that investigation.

Traveling man

And Gassett has received publicity over the last year for his prolific travel.

A review of Gassett’s travels by the Associated Press in September of 2012 revealed the he had spent more on travel during his tenure as commissioner than the state’s economic development chief, responsible for attracting businesses from across the globe.

Documents obtained by Pure Politics using the Open Records Act confirm the Associated Press article. Gassett’s travel records also show that he noticeably cut back his travel after the AP’s article even though the department’s spokesperson was quoted saying the Fish and Wildlife Commission was “quite comfortable” with the amount of travel and expenses.

Among the expenses on trips were valet parking and overnight stays at the Seelbach Hotel even though Gassett’s mileage revealed he drove just 32 miles to get there.

Gassett also charged steak dinners, including a 2011 dinner which he was charged $181 for steak at the Indianapolis steak house, St. Elmo’s, which was frequented by former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

Fish and Wildlife is not funded like other state agencies, a portion of their funding comes from sportsmen and women who purchase hunting and fishing licenses’ each year, they also receive federal wildlife grants.

After the article, Gassett still participated in meetings, but records show that his food costs declined dramatically and he began to get his travel costs reimbursed more often by the associations that hosted the conferences.

But Kennedy, the former department employee who criticized Gassett’s management, defended the amount of travel and expenses Gassett racked up as being “warranted.”

Kennedy, who talked to Pure Politics before Gassett resigned, said he considered Gassett, to be a friend. And a part of him hopes that the two remain friends even after his abrupt resignation last year.

“I haven’t talked to him since, but I hope we’re friends at some level,” Kennedy said.


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