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Legislative committee reviewing wildlife agency

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm •  Published: June 11, 2013

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A legislative committee has ordered a review of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, one of the latest signs of heightened vigilance of the agency's operations by lawmakers.

Sen. Christian McDaniel, co-chairman of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, said lawmakers are expected to be briefed on the status of that review during a meeting Thursday. Legislative staffers conducting the review aren't expected to wrap up until later this year.

It's a level of scrutiny the fish and wildlife agency is unaccustomed to, and it could be expanding to other investigative agencies. Rep. Brent Yonts said he has been told that the Tourism Cabinet's Office of Inspector General and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission also have opened investigations, though that couldn't immediately be confirmed.

"We cannot confirm any investigations," said William Dexter, an attorney for the Tourism Cabinet.

John Steffen, head of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, attended a Government Contract Review Committee hearing that dealt in part with the wildlife agency on Tuesday, sitting quietly in the audience and leaving after the discussion ended. He said he "could neither confirm nor deny" that his agency is investigating.

The Government Contract Review Committee postponed a vote Tuesday on a contract that would set a $134,000 salary for the head of the wildlife agency, Commissioner Jonathan Gassett. Lawmakers took the action after Yonts informed them that the Fish and Wildlife Commission hadn't approved Gassett's contract.

The contract that would run through June 30, 2014, also would provide $53,000 in benefits to Gassett. Additional language in the contract would set a $218,000 cap on his compensation package but would allow it to be raised with the approval of the Finance and Administration Cabinet and the Government Contract Review Committee.

Lawmakers said Tuesday they would reconsider the contract only if the Fish and Wildlife Commission approves it. The contract had already has been signed by Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman Stuart Ray and former Tourism Secretary Marcheta who resigned last month.

Yonts said Gassett has worked the past three years under an invalid contract because it hadn't received required approvals beyond a vote by the commission. That, he said, was discovered by legislative staffers who are conducting the review of the agency.

"Commissioner Gassett understands the contract deferral and hopes to have the contract finalized as soon as possible," Dexter said in a statement.

Gassett didn't immediately return a telephone call on Tuesday. Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman Stuart Ray referred questions Tuesday to the Tourism Cabinet.


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