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SAFARI PROMPTS THIRD INQUIRY INTO VIRGINIA WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AGENCY

William L. Woodfin Jr., department director
By LOUIS HANSEN, The Virginian-Pilot
© February 2, 2005

RICHMOND — An investigation of a taxpayer-supported African safari is the third time in three years that top officials at the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have been scrutinized by state investigators.

In the two earlier investigations, auditors uncovered questionable purchases and conflicts of interest among the department’s leadership.

The current investigation focuses on $12,000 in taxpayer-funded purchases made for a safari in Zimbabwe, a trip to Israel for anti-terrorism training and more alleged conflicts of interest.

A November 2002 study by the State Internal Auditor rebuked department director William L. Woodfin Jr. for costly and questionable purchases including high-end shotguns, a little-used all-terrain vehicle and the installation of extra coffee cup holders in the agency’s fleet of vehicles.

In November 2003, a second report found that one of Woodfin’s top deputies, Michael Caison, used state equipment for his private catering business and that Caison was paid to cater several agency parties and events.

The report also found that Caison violated a state policy against carrying alcohol in government vehicles, which could have resulted in dismissal. Instead, Caison was promoted from captain to major one year after the report was issued. He remains a top officer , and went on the African safari with three other agency officials.

The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is charged with wildlife management, and it issues hunting and fishing permits, enforces game laws and registers boats, among other duties. It has a $43 million budget, with 460 employees in districts around the state.

Woodfin said in an interview this week that the department has changed some policies since the audits. He said he preferred for employees to address work complaints with their supervisors, but was not bothered to have state auditors examining the department.

“That’s another set of eyes and ears,” he said. “That’s good.”

Woodfin also defended Caison’s promotion. In a written statement, Caison said he did not profit from catering several state-sponsored events.

The allegations that prompted all three investigations were filed with the state’s Fraud, Waste and Abuse Hotline, according to documents obtained by The Virginian-Pilot. The hot line receives about 400 calls annually, said Merritt L. Cogswell, the State Internal Auditor.

Potential whistleblowers can remain anonymous, and not all allegations lead to investigations. Investigations are re-directed to law enforcement agencies if criminal fraud is discovered. Cogswell conducted the 2002 and 2003 audits of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and said they were not referred for criminal investigations.

Cogswell declined to comment on the contents of the reports or the current investigation.

Daniel A. Hoffler, chairman of the department’s Board of Commissioners, promised that board members would repay the expenses for the September 2004 trip to Zimbabwe. He said the board collected $12,500, and expected to raise $15,000 to cover the expenses.

Hoffler chairs the 11-member board, which is appointed by the governor. The board elected Hoffler chairman in 2003. The board oversees the executive director of the department.

Hoffler, a Hampton Roads developer, went on the safari with Woodfin, Caison and Col. Terry Bradbery . The men initially had sought to have the state pay for the safari, but that request was turned down. Hoffler said he personally spent more than $40,000 to fund the trip.

The four men acknowledged that they spent at least $12,000 in taxpayer money on luggage, equipment and clothing for their 17-day trip.

Woodfin wrote a column in the January issue of the department’s monthly magazine defending the trip, saying that it gave them a better understanding of different hunting cultures and insight into international poaching.

Critics said the trip was unnecessary and argued that no taxpayer money should have been used.

Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officials declined to comment on the current investigation.

While the governor’s office would not comment on the investigation, press secretary Ellen Qualls said the reimbursement is appropriate “if it lifts the cloud of negative perception.”

The investigation in 2002 focused on complaints against Woodfin. The two-page report substantiated several of the allegations.

One complaint concerned Woodfin’s authorization of 13 Beretta over-and-under shotguns, at $899 apiece, for instructors in the hunting and outdoor education programs. The auditor noted that many other shotguns were available for less than one-third of the cost.

Woodfin also ordered the department to install new cup holders in several of the agency’s vehicles. The report does not cite the cost of the improvements, but, as with the shotguns, investigators questioned the necessity of the purchase.

Investigators found less validity to other charges against Woodfin, including an allegation that he purchased with taxpayer funds an all-terrain vehicle for his family’s personal use.

The investigators found that an ATV was purchased to survey state property, but that the vehicle was driven only five miles in 18 months. The report concluded that the $5,149 spent on the ATV and a trailer was questionable and not “essential to the operation of the agency.”

The 2003 investigation covered allegations that Caison received favorable treatment from Woodfin and used his state vehicle to run his private business, C&S Seafood. The four-page report concluded that some of the accusations were valid.

One of the complaints claimed that Caison regularly used his state vehicle during business hours to run his catering business, and rarely reported to work at the agency’s Richmond headquarters.

In an affidavit provided by the agency, Caison said he catered retreats and events sponsored by Game and Inland Fisheries, the Secretary of Natural Resources, and the House Committee on Natural Resources. Caison said he charged wholesale prices.

“I never made a profit nor did my business profit in any way from this venture,” he wrote in a memo dated Jan. 13, 2003. The agency provided the memo in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Auditors found that Caison’s actions appeared to violate state policy; investigators were given a photo that showed a case of Coors beer in Caison’s state-owned vehicle.

State policy prohibits employees from drinking or possessing alcohol while at work, including official state functions.

According to investigators, Caison’s use of a state vehicle for his private business was “clearly a conflict of interest.”

In the report, Woodfin said he did not think it was a conflict of interest to hire Caison for staff events, because Caison would be attending the events anyway. In a subsequent interview, Woodfin said the department stopped having Caison cater their events after the concerns were raised.

The report said Woodfin allowed Caison to work out of his home on the Eastern Shore instead of reporting to his “official duty station” in Richmond.

“It does not appear that Captain Caison reports to Richmond on a regular basis nor has any specific written schedule as to when he needs to report to Richmond,” the auditor wrote. “There is clearly the opportunity for abuse in such an arrangement.”

The complaints also claimed that Caison received preferential treatment and promotions, but Charlie Sledd, a senior staff member, said Caison was qualified for his promotions. Sledd and two other agency officials interviewed Caison for his move from sergeant to captain.

The investigation of Caison was not relevant to his interviews for new positions, Sledd said. “It’s not a part of what an interview panel looks into,” he said.

Now whistleblowers have come forward with new allegations of mismanagement and questionable spending at the agency.

The most recent complaints, filed late last year, allege unnecessary travel by game wardens, improper purchases of an ATV and personal watercraft, and abuse of state-issued credit cards, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by The Virginian-Pilot.

Members of the Game and Inland Fisheries board are expected to discuss purchasing procedures at a Feb. 10 public meeting in Richmond.

Woodfin and other top officials said in interviews this week that morale in the department is generally good. The agency has been making changes to its hiring, salary and promotion policies. The changes have upset some employees, Sledd said.

“There are simply some people who don’t want to make changes,” he said.

Staff writer Lee Tolliver contributed to this report. Reach Louis Hansen at 446-2322 or louis.hansen@pilotonline.com


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