UPDATE: Judge dismisses Fish and Wildlife lawsuit against Beshear Administration
Update: October 28, 2020:
FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – A judge dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday from the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission against the Beshear Administration over the governor’s refusal to agree to the commission’s two-year contract for Commissioner Rich Storm, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
The report says Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled the commission has the authority to select its commissioner, but it can’t circumvent state laws governing purchasing known as the Kentucky Model Procurement Act.
The commission argued it has the sole authority to hire Storm as its commissioner and set his salary. Governor Andy Beshear disagreed.
In January, the commission board voted unanimously to give Storm a new two-year contract at $140,000 per year. The Beshear Administration offered Storm a one-year contract after lawmakers enacted a one-year budget instead of a normal two-year spending plan due to the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic. When Storm didn’t accept the one-year contract, the administration stopped his salary in mid-July.
The fish and wildlife board voted unanimously in August to pursue the lawsuit. Governor Beshear called the move, “silly.”
The commission is represented by the Office of the Attorney General. There was no immediate comment or reaction to Wednesday’s ruling from Attorney General Daniel Cameron or his office, according to the newspaper report.
Following Wednesday’s ruling by Judge Wingate, Governor Beshear released the following statement: “This is a win for the people of Kentucky, who deserve a fiscally responsible, transparent government. As Kentucky faces economic challenges from COVID-19, it is unfortunate that the attorney general and commission filed a lawsuit claiming they can operate without financial oversight of the public funds it collects from sportsmen and women. As we support the critical role Fish and Wildlife plays in the commonwealth, my administration remains committed to transparency and accountability.”
The commission’s board chairman, Karl Clinard, confirmed Wednesday the case will be taken all the way to the Kentucky Supreme Court, according to the newspaper report.
Update: August 31, 2020:
FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – The board that oversees the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has filed suit against Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration in an effort to keep the agency’s commissioner.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reports the lawsuit filed Monday in Franklin Circuit Court asks a judge to rule that the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission has sole authority to appoint its commissioner and set the salary.
It also asks for injunctive relief prohibiting the Beshear Administration from interfering with the commission’s authority.
The Beshear Administration had no immediate comment on the lawsuit, but the governor called the commission’s vote to sue last month “silly.”
Original story by Steve Rogers from August 12, 2020 below:
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.”
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.”