When the former Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources chief admitted to multiple violations of the state government’s code of ethics, the troubled agency he once led moved a step farther from a scandal that has done it great harm.
Jonathan Gassett agreed to pay a $7,500 fine after the Executive Branch Ethics Commission found he had inappropriately directed state workers on state time to perform personal chores, given a hunting buddy a leg up on a state contract, and scored some free Kentucky Derby passes from the Kentucky State Police.
The department took another positive step when its governorappointed nine-member commission adopted some new governance principles in early March. They say (duh!) commissioners should not use their position to secure special treatment and access to restricted hunting areas, as a state Inspector General found they had done for years.
Those governance principles also spell out a way for commissioners to police and censure themselves.
Unfortunately, the new rules say that only the commission chair or a designated employee can speak to the media on anything brought before the commission.
That sounds like a gag order on the other eight commissioners, each representing a geographic area of the state with constituents to serve. We’d like that anti-free-speech measure reconsidered.
So while some progress as been made, this vital agency has a long way to go before we can join them singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire.
Thus far, the only people paying a real penalty from the ethical lapses and political favoritism are Mr. Gassett and a few other staff members who have also left, retired or paid ethics fines.
Yet, the IG report found that in addition to rigged hunting lotteries for commissioners, at least two commissioners obtained free fish from the department, which had no authority to dole them out.
We had hoped that Gov. Steve Beshear would have decided which commission members could be trusted to overhaul the agency, and replace those that cannot — before the commission hires a new person to replace Gassett, who stepped down in September.
To his credit, the governor on Feb. 6 demanded his appointees “take responsibility for addressing the issues that have been detailed in the investigations and take immediate steps to change the culture of the department from the top down.”
He told the commission to give him a “detailed action plan” to “bring about the necessary changes to restore public confidence in the department and its leadership.”
But now we hear that the commission has put that request on hold, saying it won’t deliver a more comprehensive action plan to the governor until after it hires a replacement for Mr. Gassett.
We cannot, by the way, understate the importance of that hire, which could come any day now.
The commission must look beyond the good ol’ boy network and hire a commissioner with a track record of cleaning up messes and reaching out to a wider audience than just the hook-and-bullet crowd, to all Kentuckians who share a stake in conservation of our wildlife resources.
One other thing that might help is if Mr. Beshear and future governors make appointments to the commission that look more like Kentucky, including women and minorities and others who seem less hostile to people who don’t hunt.
The bitter battle three years ago over the state’s first and unnecessary sandhill crane hunt in nearly 100 years comes to mind.
Yes, the department is funded primarily by license sales and the federal excise tax on sporting equipment.
But it is not a private hunting club. It’s a public agency with a mission of managing an integral part of Kentucky’s rich natural heritage for hunters and non-hunters alike, and doing so in a way engenders the trust of the public.
— The Courier-Journal, Louisville