No stranger to litigation, both as Kentucky attorney general and now as governor, Andy Beshear could be facing more legal wrangling over his administration’s handling of the reappointment of Rich Storm to the office of Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Commissioner.
The Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, meeting via video conference, voted 7-0 Wednesday to reaffirm its Jan. 31 unanimous vote to appoint Storm as commissioner, an appointment that has never been acted on by the Beshear administration.
The commission also cast a unanimous vote to retain the Office of the Attorney General to represent the commission for the purpose of vindicating its statutory discretion in the selection of its commissioner.
A final motion, which also passed 7-0, authorizes the office of Attorney General Daniel Cameron to initiate any legal proceedings necessary to vindicate the commission’s selection and appointment of Storm.
The commission’s beef with the Beshear administration stems back to the Democratic governor’s attempt earlier this year to divert to the general fund $5.5 million of boat registration money in each year of a proposed biennial budget.
That effort was ultimately shot down by a Republican-controlled state legislature that eventually passed only a one-year budget because of the economic disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.
Storm – a former fish and wildlife commission member – was hired by that body in January 2019 to fill a vacancy created when Gregory Johnson retired as commissioner in 2018.
The commission on Jan. 31, 2020, unanimously approved a two-year contract extension at $140,000 per year for Storm.
But after months of taking no action on approving the contract extension, the Beshear administration through the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet that oversees the fish and wildlife department offered Storm a one-year, $140,000 contract.
Because the offer didn’t come from the fish and wildlife commission, which by statute has the authority to hire and fire the commissioner, Storm didn’t respond. He has since had his paychecks stopped by the Beshear administration and is not currently in the commissioner role.
Cameron, a Republican, has issued an opinion stating that the fish and wildlife commission has the sole authority under state statute to hire and fire the commissioner.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman Karl Clinard of Somerset didn’t mince words in his explanation of the commission’s actions.
“Since the beginning of this year, the commission has fought to exercise its statutory right to appoint a commissioner,” Clinard said. “At each turn, the administration has thwarted our efforts, I believe in an attempt to exert undue political influence over the commission and to access departmental funds.”
Beshear was no less forceful when he addressed the commission’s actions and the potential legal action Wednesday during his daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic.
Justifying the one-year contract offer to Storm, Beshear said: “At a time when we have record unemployment and our budget for next year may require the largest budget cuts in our history, I’d like to think that (one-year contract) is pretty reasonable.”
Bringing up past financial and management problems in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Beshear said: “We are just trying to make them be financially responsible ... and this is a group that we’re going to have to make be financially responsible.”
The governor said there’s danger in allowing Fish and Wildlife to continue to operate free of any oversight.
“The position this commission is taking is that the Finance Cabinet and the rest of the executive branch can’t say no or provide oversight on any decision they make,” Beshear said. “That department has faced years of ethical concerns and has received critical audit after critical audit.”
Beshear described as “silly” the notion that the commission, with a history that includes those critical audits, should have no oversight.
“Going to court is just goofy,” Beshear said. “It’s going to be a gigantic waste of time.”
As for Storm, he says he’s simply looking forward to continuing his duties as head of the department.
“I appreciate the unanimous support from the commission and the tremendous support of our hunters and anglers,” he said in a text message. “This has been a humbling process to have nearly constant support from emails, reporters, social media, family and friends.
“I believe the law is on our side, and I am excited to continue to lead the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.”