Sept. 8: Hunting, fishing fees footed bill for event

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2008 - 11:27 PM

Report says DNR inappropriately spent $300,000. Two DNR leaders are on leave while inquiries continue.

Minnesota hunters and anglers paid a big share of the bill for an international game warden conference that earned a profit for a state employees union and now is under scrutiny by state investigators.

The conference last year featured a week of social events and training for state conservation officers and their peers from across the United States and Canada. The state legislative auditor recently reported that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources inappropriately spent $300,000 in public money and violated a conflict-of-interest law in supporting the July 2007 event in a St. Paul hotel.

DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten told two legislative committees Monday that all of the estimated $390,000 in state aid to the conference initially came out of the special fund that gets its money from hunting and fishing license fees.

When questions arose about the conference earlier this year, Holsten said the department reallocated money to partly repay the fish and game fund.

Even so, the fund still ended up putting more than $230,000 into the conference, plus $34,000 for related travel, he said.

Last year, that fund put $87 million into an array of fish and game programs -- everything from game enforcement to fish hatcheries to wildlife management areas. In an interview, Holsten said he recognized that hunters and anglers won't be happy about the conference spending.

"Just as I'm not happy -- I would like it to be something different," Holsten said in an interview after appearing before the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division and the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division.

The inquiries by the Legislative Auditor, the two committees and an internal DNR investigation were prompted by a report about the conference last May in the Star Tribune.

Although the DNR kicked in money and staff time to plan and host the conference, the $76,000 in profits went to the state conservation officers union and the international association -- with none to the state.

Legislators urged Legislative Auditor James Nobles to try to get some of the money back, a legal effort he has turned over to the attorney general's office. A spokesman for the office said attorneys are reviewing the audit report.

Holsten has said he was not aware of the extent of DNR's financial commitment to the conference. He said he will take action to deal with the problem after another inquiry, by a Minneapolis law firm retained by the state, is completed in a few weeks.

Col. Mike Hamm, head of the enforcement division, and his wife, Capt. Cathy Hamm, a regional supervisor who led the conference planning, were placed on administrative leave last May when the investigations began.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis and chairwoman of the House subcommittee, said she believes the commissioner's office and others, including Col. Hamm, share the blame for authorizing illegal fundraising. "It does seem to me ... that Col. Hamm is the chief law enforcement officer and he didn't know the law," Wagenius said.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090

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