Thursday, February 9th, 2023
Thursday, February 9th, 2023

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DNR Enforcement chief on administrative leave

St. Paul – Two top officials in the DNR Enforcement Division are
on paid administrative leave as investigations begin regarding a
state-supported conservation officer conference in St. Paul last
July.

Col. Mike Hamm, DNR chief conservation officer, and his wife,
Capt. Cathy Hamm, were placed on leave Monday.

“In order to ensure the department continues to operate
smoothly, and to avoid a conflict of interest, (DNR Commissioner
Mark Holsten) made the decision to put Mike and Cathy on paid
administrative leave for the time being,” DNR spokeswoman Colleen
Coyne said. “This is simply standard procedure in cases like these
and does not imply any sort of wrongdoing on their part.”

By placing them on leave, Holsten also sought to eliminate what
would be a distraction for DNR staff and management, and “he wanted
to make sure these distractions did not affect the high quality of
work that our COs do every day,” she said.

The Hamms likely will remain on leave for the “duration of the
investigation,” though it’s not known how long that will be, she
said. According to the DNR, Col. Hamm’s salary is $108,367 per
year; Capt. Hamm’s is $87,675 per year.

Mark Johanson, who retired April 29 as the standards and
training manager for the DNR Enforcement Division, has agreed to
come out of retirement and be the interim head of the division.
Johanson was the acting head for six months in 2003, too.

The decision to place the Hamms on leave is the latest in a
string of developments related to a North American Wildlife
Enforcement Officers Association convention held in St. Paul last
summer. The Star Tribune reported last week that organizers of the
event earned a $76,600 profit, while the DNR spent $196,000 in
state money and about $187,000 in staff salaries – a total of
$383,000 – on the event.

The DNR plans to hire an outside firm to investigate the matter
– it hadn’t done so as of earlier this week – and is conducting an
internal investigation. The state legislative auditor launched an
investigation last week, and a joint House-Senate committee
convened a hearing last Friday.

According to DNR documents, the state paid for the 2007
conference: $61,127 for lodging; $11,355.50 for meals; $5,135 for
printing; $1,672 for parking, supplies, and communications; $64,100
for registrations; $35,500 for a grant to the NAWEOA; and $1,729
for a website. Those numbers do not include staff salaries, but DNR
Assistant Commissioner Larry Kramka said the $187,000 figure is “in
the ballpark.”

Lawmakers at Friday’s hearing had a variety of questions for DNR
officials relating to the use of state money for the conference,
and they questioned the legality of officers raising funds for it
on state time. They also wondered who was in the field protecting
natural resources during the conference, since all 204 conservation
officers in the state were required to attend.

Holsten promised lawmakers the DNR would answer all their
questions as the investigations unfold, but warned them he wouldn’t
be able to answer them immediately. He called the allegations “very
serious” and said the agency wasn’t taking them lightly.

“We’re trying to put together a paper trail of 200-some-odd
employees over a two-year period of time,” Holsten said.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who led the hearing along
with Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said there appeared to be
“runaway costs” associated with the event, and questioned why
legislators weren’t aware of the spending.

“This should have been all clear and transparent to the public,”
she said.

Anderson wondered how the state got itself on the hook for
hundreds of thousands of dollars for the conference while the North
American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association walked away with
a profit. She questioned whether DNR officials were aware of how
much the conference would cost the state.

“Who was paying attention to this whole financial arrangement?”
she said. “Was anyone?”

Anderson also wondered what the state gained as a result of the
“large state investment.”

Col. Hamm defended the conference as valuable training for
conservation officers, and served as employee development since
they listened to a variety of speakers and were able to examine a
variety of equipment that officers use.

Hamm also said it was a difficult decision for him to bring all
204 conservation officers to St. Paul during the summer – officers
were mandated to attend July 19-21 (Thursday, Friday, and
Saturday), and could have been gone an additional two days because
of travel – but that “this is an opportunity that just doesn’t come
by.”

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, a former conservation officer
and president of the Minnesota Conservation Officers Association,
said competition is tight to host the conference.

“We’ve been trying to land this thing like a crown jewel for
years,” he said.

Nevertheless, lawmakers questioned why the DNR decided to spend
the money they did on the conference while also asking the
Legislature for more money to train conservation officers.

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