Lots of anxious eyes in St. Paul will be watching for an internal investigator’s report, due this week, on charges that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) enforcement division misspent nearly $300,000 in state funds and improperly conducted fundraising to support an international meeting of conservation officers.
Last month, the Legislative Auditor’s office said (PDF) that the division ignored a 2005 directive by then-Commissioner Gene Merriam that state funds should not be used for the conference. The head of the division, Col. Michael Hamm, and his wife, Capt. Cathy Hamm, an employee in the division, are on paid administrative leave pending the investigator’s report.
Legislative Auditor James Nobles said he was forwarding his report to the Attorney General’s office, which, he said, is responsible for recovering inappropriately spent state funds.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said that he and members of the Legislative Audit Commission, which Hansen chairs, are satisfied that laws and state policy were violated in the case of the conservation officers’ conference, held last year.
However, it’s uncertain what’s going to happen to the Hamms and to others in state government who were involved in the 2005 decisions on the conference. The assistant DNR commissioner who supervised the division when initial decisions were made about it, Brad Moore, has since moved to the Pollution Control Agency (PCA), where he serves as commissioner.
“They have to do something,” Hansen said.
And here’s where things get a little murky.
Politically, the conservation officers (often called game wardens, who enforce natural resources laws) are very strong within the DNR — which itself has been described by past DNR managers as a collection of independent fiefdoms that make administration difficult. The enforcement division has operated somewhat independently, owing both to the power of the Hamms and the nature of the conservation officers who mostly operate out of their homes with minimal supervision.
A DNR insider said there is a “circle the wagons” response under way as those in the enforcement division seek to protect the Hamms. The feeling among the conservation officers, the source said, is that they as a group are under attack.
The conservation officers even have their own private group, the Minnesota Conservation Officers’ Association (MCOA), which operates within the department — even using the DNR headquarters as its mailing address.
State funds used for spouses’ expenses, social activities
Both the division and the MCOA ran the 2007 conference when, the legislative auditor said, state funds were used to pay costs for spouses, for ferrying attendees between events, and even for paying for social activities, including a golf outing. Mike Hamm was generally responsible for the conference and Cathy Hamm did much of the organizing work.
According to the auditor’s report, the MCOA and the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association reported a $77,000 profit on the conference.
Hansen said that financial accountability within the DNR is lax and his Legislative Commission will be looking at ways to address that.
Meanwhile, the question is whether the Hamms will be able to keep their jobs and what will be done to those others, including Moore, who were in the line of accountability within the DNR.
For his part, Moore said he left the DNR for the PCA in August of 2006, and while he informally communicated the DNR’s position on the conference with Mike Hamm he said he did not sign off on any conference expenditures.
Merriam left the DNR later in 2006. Mark Holsten was the DNR’s deputy commissioner when initial decisions on the conference were made; Holsten currently is commissioner, a position he held in 2007 when the conservation officers’ convention was held.