April 12, 2009 in City

Investigation lashes Idaho fish, game agency

Officials dispute ‘misuse of resources’ claim
Ralph Bartholdt St. Maries Gazette Record
 

Conservation officers at the Idaho Fish and Game department employ department vehicles for personal use, put their children and families in harm’s way by taking them on patrols, misspend public funds on lengthy investigations that result in few or no convictions and are less than open when it comes to public records requests, according to a report from private investigators.

“The general undertone is misuse of resources,” said Phil Thompson, vice president of Hayden-based Confidential Investigations, which spent $13,000 and two years investigating Idaho Fish and Game.

A Fish and Game spokesman counters that the department’s officers must adhere to strict guidelines when using state property.

Any misuse that came to light as part of the private investigation is being addressed, Mike Keckler said.

Confidential Investigations began looking into department records as part of a civil court case two years ago, when red flags popped up in other areas, Thompson said.

Erin Jenkins, president of Confidential Investigations, said “as a citizen of Idaho who pays taxes, as a business, we pay a lot of taxes, it’s really frustrating to see that organizations that are supposed to serve people is really serving itself, in our opinion.”

E-mails, witness statements and court records show that Fish and Game conservation officers routinely use state-owned equipment – including vehicles, phones and cabins – for personal use, a practice that is accepted by the department, Thompson said.

He cites e-mails such as one that District Conservation Officer Mark Rhodes wrote to a senior conservation officer.

“I have absolutely no problem with our folks using department phones (or other equipment for that matter) for personal stuff as long as we make things right,” Rhodes wrote.

The investigation found that Fish and Game employees routinely used the department’s remote cabins for family getaways.

Department policy allows Fish and Game staff to take their families to the cabins as long as they perform routine maintenance, Keckler said.

“We have 20 cabins out there, most of them in very remote areas throughout the state,” he said. “They are hard to maintain and we don’t have the resources. We do allow people to check those out and encourage officers to go out in those cabins.” Virgil Moore, deputy director of Idaho Fish and Game, said the cabin policy has been in place a long time.

“I think we have a defensible policy,” he said.

Accusations of misuse aren’t fair, he said.

“The criticism that we are too lax, or that our management systems aren’t appropriate relative to the public service we provide … I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. “Nothing we do should result in additional cost to the hunting public.”

The investigation also found that officers’ children are routinely allowed to ride along on patrols.

An e-mail from Senior Conservation Officer Mark Bowen reads: “OK, I am planning to bring my daughter along tomorrow to do a CDA boat patrol.”

Thompson, the investigator, said Fish and Game sometimes uses the term “non-enforcement patrol” when officers bring their children along in the field.

According to Fish and Game, officers are discouraged from taking children on law enforcement patrols.

“They are not taking young people along if there is a potential that high-risk contact would occur,” Keckler said.

Thompson maintains patrolling with children puts youngsters in harm’s way and would likely induce a conservation officer to forgo his or her duties if they thought the situation could be dangerous.

“What is ‘non-enforcement’ when you are an enforcement officer? It doesn’t compute,” he said.

The 300-page document includes six sections. One section recounts two high-profile Fish and Game cases that resulted in a few misdemeanor charges.

In a 2001 case that originated at Calder, along the St. Joe River, Fish and Game officers bragged about breaking up a “ring of international poachers.” The case was described by a Shoshone County prosecutor as “the worst case I’ve ever seen in the state.”

But the case against the main suspect, a 57-year-old man accused of illegally guiding and killing bear, turkeys and elk, was short on evidence. It was eventually dismissed.

“Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose,” Keckler said. “That is the nature of the investigation work.”

In a case three years ago called “Operation Snowball,” the department spent almost $30,000 to return six misdemeanor citations, according to Thompson.

The convictions included tag transfers and an illegally killed elk. They cost perpetrators approximately $3,000 in fines and fees.

“The Snowball and Calder operations are examples of enforcement resources thrown together on faulty information,” Thompson concluded in his report. “We suggest that the money used in Snowball … could have been better spent by putting those nine game wardens on patrol in their respective districts, interacting with the public under the Enforcement Creed and furthering hunting and fishing in Idaho.”

The department stands by the investigation and its results.

“We think it was a legitimate investigation,” Keckler said. “Six convictions is just that: six convictions. We needed to take action there. It was a poaching ring. These people are essentially stealing from all of us.”

The report also accuses the department of being less than open in disclosing public records.

Two state legislators, Reps. Phil Hart and Dick Harwood, intervened when the department wanted to charge investigators more than $500 to compile public records, Thompson said.

The department cites Idaho statutes that allow charging for records that take a long time to compile.

“It took a lot of time to get their records together,” said Keckler. “Statute allows us to charge when it reaches a certain point. Once lawmakers sent us a letter to waive those fees, we promptly did that.”

He said that many of the incidents cited in the report are being addressed by the department.

“We are not trying to hide anything from anybody,” Keckler said. “Our bosses said we run a transparent agency and we stand by that.”

He said when department policies and guidelines are not adhered to it becomes a personnel matter.

“We trust our folks not to abuse this,” he said.


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