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DNR spending questioned

Published (5/16/2008)
By Nick Busse
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Officials from the Department of Natural Resources faced tough questions from House and Senate members May 9 about a report that state funds were used — possibly inappropriately — to finance a conservation officer conference in St. Paul last year.

On May 5, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that DNR officials authorized $383,000 in state resources to help organize a national conference of the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association. According to the newspaper, the association netted a $76,600 profit from the event, which was organized in part by state employees who allegedly solicited money for the event on state time.

Members of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division and the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division grilled several DNR officials on the report.

“I just don’t understand how the state came on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars for this,” said Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul). “Why on earth if they were profiting would we be paying?”

DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten described the allegations as “very serious,” and said the department has launched an internal investigation into the matter.

“We’re trying to put a paper trail together of 200-some-odd employees over a two-year period of time,” Holsten said, adding that the department would cooperate fully with a forthcoming audit by the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

Col. Mike Hamm, the department’s director of enforcement, defended the conference as providing valuable training for the state’s conservation officers. Responding to Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls), who questioned Hamm’s decision to order all of the state’s 204 conservation officers to attend the conference — thus leaving no officers in the field anywhere in the state for three days — Hamm replied, “That was a difficult decision for me to make.”

Anderson said the hearing was “not the last discussion” that legislators would have on the issue.

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