Governor blasts Wildlife Commission’s legal move, lack of oversight

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – The state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Wednesday to contract with Attorney General Daniel Cameron to sue the governor for his refusal to agree to the Commission’s two-year contract for the state wildlife director.

The decision drew a sharp rebuke from Gov. Andy Beshear who called it “really silly” and “gigantic waste of time” from a board that has had “years of ethical concerns.”

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In a 30-minute virtual meeting interrupted once by technical issues, the nine-member board had it’s own critical words, saying the state’s “700,000 sportsmen deserve and demand better” than what the board called Beshear’s “effort to impose undue political influence.”

The dispute is over the board’s decision last January to name Rich Storm, a former board chairman, as head of Fish and Wildlife under a two-year contract at an annual salary of $140,000 a year.

But when the Commission sent the contract to the Finance Cabinet for approval, the cabinet refused, saying it would only approve it for one year because the General Assembly had only approved a one-year budget.

Since then, the Commission, the Finance Cabinet and the Governor’s office have been at odds and when the issue hit a dead end last week, the Commission called Wednesday’s special meeting to “affirm” its hiring of Storm, to contract with Cameron, who is becoming a growing political opponent of Beshear’s, and authorize Cameron to take legal action all the way to “the state Supreme Court,” if necessary.

In response to arguments that all contracts must be limited to one year, the board claimed Beshear’s administration has approved “more than 900 contracts” of more than one year. Furthermore, the board argued its budget is funded by fees and licenses paid by hunters, fishermen and others and not from general fund tax dollars.

The 7-0 votes came as three members’ terms expire this month.

But Beshear countered, noting the board has been cited for questionable practices and cronyism by previous administrations, including a scathing audit last year by Republican state Auditor Mike Harmon.

“So instead of accepting a one-year contract at $140,000 and coming back next year and doing another one-year contract and accepting some oversight, they have drawn a line in the sand,” Beshear said during his daily coronavirus briefing.

“I think we have been pretty reasonable..just trying to make them be financially responsible….They have had years of ethical concerns…critical audits after critical audits after critical audits,” Beshear stated, adding the Commission is “taking the position we can’t provide oversight.”

In the audit last year, Harmon said ” a real and significant cultural change is needed” at the Commission.

And even Harmon debunked the funding issue, saying the revenues were “all state dollars…public funds,” Beshear said.

“They can’t skirt the law,” he concluded, calling the legal action a “waste of time.”

Republican State Auditor Mike Harmon issued a statement Wednesday evening.

“Today, our 2018 audit of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources was brought up during the Governor’s daily press briefing.  Like all of the audits and examinations issued by our office, we stand by the KDFWR audit and its findings.  But, the KDFWR commission also has the sole authority, according to statute and as recently reaffirmed by the Attorney General, to choose their own commissioner.

When I took office in 2016, I gave our auditors a simple motto, Follow the Data.  That means we don’t target anyone, and we don’t give anyone a pass.  Our auditors find the data, confirm the data, and report the data.  I view my role as Kentucky State Auditor as an independent, non-partisan job.  That remains as true today as it was the first day I took office.”