Thursday, December 30, 2004
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Getting the game department back on track
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
- Virginia’s hunting totals produce mixed results
- A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk
- Forget the odds-makers; Salem’s John Crews believes he can win the Bassmaster Classic.
- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
For the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Christmas Day was anything but a time of peace, joy and good will toward men. On the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch was a report that the agency is under investigation to determine whether high-ranking DGIF officials improperly used state credit cards to pay for about $12,000 in expenses for a hunting expedition to Africa.
Charges of improprieties aren’t that uncommon in wildlife departments of many states, but this is a first for straight-shooting Virginia. I have covered the agency for 40 years, attending more board meetings, I believe, than any other person in its history. What I have observed for the most part is the finest organization in state government, one that has earned an amazing amount of loyalty and assistance from its constituents by serving them well.
Yet, the front-page story didn’t surprise me that much, because I have seen the DGIF leadership recently become increasingly autocratic. Old friends of the agency and even loyal and talented employees have been held at arm’s length as the department is controlled by an increasingly smaller circle of power whose members are offended when someone has a tough question or alternate viewpoint. The result is favoritism and cronyism that has caused some people to lose trust and resort to trench warfare.
Those who call the shots have said that they simply are moving the department forward and that there is a vendetta by people inside and outside the agency bent on preventing that. What I see is a grand old agency moving away from the grassroots that have made it a success; an agency that now exerts time trying to control people rather than involve them.
The original plan, according to the Times-Dispatch, was for the 17-day jaunt to Zimbabwe to be funded as a DGIF business trip to deal with global game management and conservation issues. The DGIF participants, according to the report, were Bill Woodfin, executive director; Dan Hoffler, board chairman and game wardens Col. Terry Bradbery and Maj. Mike Caison.
Woodfin became director in the mid-'90s after being appointed acting director by Gov. George Allen. Hoffler is a successful Tidewater developer who has hunted big game in a number of countries and is a major contributor to Gov. Mark Warner. He was appointed to the board by Warner and quickly became its chairman.
A couple of weeks before the four officials were to depart, W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., secretary of natural resources, ruled that the trip could not be financed with state funds, because it was not necessary to improve game management and conservation in Virginia.
When that occurred, Hoffler funded much of the trip. But $12,000 in state credit card expenditures already had gone for passports, shots, clothing, boots, cameras, gun cases, luggage and related equipment, according to a tip to the state fraud hot line. The Times-Dispatch said it received this information on the condition of anonymity.
A state internal auditor is investigating the hot-line tip. Murphy said he wouldn’t make a judgment until the report is complete. At this point, “No one has shown me any evidence of any wrongdoing,” he told the Times-Dispatch.
There certainly are things for Virginians to learn in Africa, but it was fuzzy thinking to consider justifying DGIF funds at a time when the agency has suffered major cutbacks in programs, services and personnel because of a budget crunch. It is the same faulty reasoning that has afforded the director annual bonus and soon-to-be salary increases while programs are being cut.
DGIF funds are provided by outdoor sportsmen primarily through hunting and fishing license sales and boat registration fees along with taxes on outdoor equipment.
They are intended “to manage Virginia’s wildlife and inland fish to maintain optimum populations of all species to serve the needs of the Commonwealth; to provide opportunity for all to enjoy wildlife, inland fish, boating and related outdoor recreation; to promote safety for persons and property in connection with boating, hunting and fishing.”
The quote above is the agency’s mission statement.
It is uncertain what impact this incident will have on the agency’s credibility, as it deals with the fast-approaching General Assembly, and as it moves toward a needed increase in hunting, fishing and boating fees. Will it receive the support that has been so generous and vital in the past?
It must if it is to survive, so let’s hope that just enough discomfort has been exerted to get the DGIF back on track.