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Conservation officials get cash prizes, hunting trips

Missouri's conservation commissioners don't get paid.

“We're paid enough by the honor of getting to serve,” said Anita Gorman, a commissioner from Kansas City.

But serving can have some advantages:

Ten-thousand-dollar awards from the oil industry. Duck-hunting junkets to Canada. Tips on land coming up for sale.

The $1.5 billion that the agency has taken in from its own sales tax over the years has given it an independence unparalleled by other state agencies. But it also allows commissioners to feel free to benefit from their positions with impunity, some say.

“They have too much money and too little oversight,” said Dan Hellmuth, a St. Louis architect who is fighting the agency over a building project. “And that's the problem.”

Gorman said the department is accountable.

“We've been very careful to try to run the department (as though) tomorrow is a vote on the one-eighth-cent sales tax,” she said.

But some instances in recent years raise questions about perks:

 Land deal: A conservation commissioner got an early chance to buy thousands of acres of forest.

Howard Wood, who left the commission last year, bought 3,600 acres of forest land in 2001 from Willamette Industries, an Oregon-based lumber conglomerate where a conservation official had just gone to work. The official, Marvin Brown, had headed the Conservation Department forestry division.

The sale made an Alabama speculator furious about favoritism.

Murray Gibson said he and another man had offered to buy all the land Willamette was selling, which was more than 20,000 acres.

But he wasn't able to buy the 3,600 that went to Wood.

“This was a good tract of land with a lot of timber on it,” Gibson said.

“I've been in this business 35 years. And I knew it was an inside deal they froze me out of.”

Brown acknowledged that he called Wood and offered him the land before negotiating with Gibson, even though Gibson had been asking to buy the property for a long time. But he said it was no sweetheart deal because Wood paid more per acre than Gibson.

Ethics experts and some legislators said Wood's purchase raised concerns. Even if Wood paid fair market value, “it just sounds bad,” said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

Sen. David Klindt, chairman of the Senate's agriculture and conservation committee, agreed the deal raises questions.

“Just the appearance of things sometimes is as bad as those types of things occurring,” said Klindt, a Bethany Republican.

Wood said the transaction was private and had nothing to do with the Conservation Department.

“There's nothing unusual about the purchase except that I knew one of the guys at Willamette Industries who knew I was looking for attractive timber as an investment,” Wood said.

Wood would not discuss the sales price, although the property has an appraised value of $330,000, according to Iron County records.

 Oil company award: In 2002, Gorman received a ChevronTexaco Conservation Award for spearheading the construction of the Discovery Center in Kansas City and bringing nature to urban areas.

The award came with a $10,000 prize, round-trip airfare for two to Houston and two nights' lodging.

“It was a bolt from the blue,” said Gorman, who was described at the time by the department's director as Missouri's conservation cheerleader.

She said she properly disclosed the award and saw nothing wrong with it, especially because commissioners put in such long, unpaid hours. She said the award also reflected highly on the department.

Others said, however, that public officials should not accept large awards for projects that rely on taxpayer money.

“The idea that you'd be getting something of substantial financial value for something you did as part of your public job does seem to be more than a stretch,” said Burdett Loomis, chairman of the political science department at the University of Kansas.

Stern agreed that people in charge of overseeing a state agency shouldn't receive large monetary awards.

“That's basically a gift,” he said. “In California, you can't even receive a gift of more than $340.”

Missouri has no such policy, said Mike Reid, the state ethics commission's director of compliance.

 Good neighbors: Last year, the Eastern Ozarks Forestry Council planned a project with the Conservation Department to study ways to thin out timber, which is done to keep a forest healthy.

The test began in September on property co-owned by Stephen Bradford — a commissioner who at the time was chairman.

The test was cut short after Bradford became angry with the way the work was being done.

Bradford said he would not have profited from the project, and he only volunteered his land to help those conducting the research. He even signed over rights to the timber harvested from his property to the forestry council.

“I can assure you this commissioner hasn't benefited at all,” Bradford said.

But even if Bradford didn't receive income from the harvested timber, his property would have been improved, Stern said.

“The problem is the perception that he's getting a favor that a member of the public would not get,” he said.

In retrospect, said department director John Hoskins, the project should have started on conservation land, where it will move next year. But he saw nothing wrong with Bradford's involvement.

Commissioners should receive the same treatment as other land owners, Hoskins said. “I don't think we should give them any less services than anyone else,” he said.

 Dollars for ducks: The Conservation Department gives $220,000 a year to Ducks Unlimited to help fund waterfowl projects in Canada.

Ducks Unlimited appreciates Missouri so much — only three states give more — that in 2001 it helped fund a trip to Manitoba for two conservation commissioners and four department officials. Missouri taxpayers pitched in $6,000.

Commissioners got some hunting in during the trip. In fact, that's where Cynthia Metcalfe bagged her first mallard.

Metcalfe said the trip was valuable to show commissioners the importance to Missouri of conserving breeding grounds in Canada.

“Nothing brought that home more clearly than that trip,” she said.

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