Pa. House committee sets sights on Game Commission transparency and ethics issues

Former Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan J. Burhans speaks at the bottom of the Glen Onoko Falls Trail on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Burhans resigned last month amid questions over a business he operated with other game commission employees. (Commonwealth Media Services photo)

A vote to end Pennsylvania’s ban on Sunday hunting was overshadowed on Wednesday by lawmakers’ consternation over issues within the agency that oversees the commonwealth’s hunting grounds and wildlife.

The state House Game and Fisheries Committee passed three pieces of legislation to expand Sunday hunting, mitigate crop damage by deer, and provide representation for farmers on the Game Commission.

The bills each passed in 13-11 votes with all Republicans in opposition. They will now go to the full House for consideration. 

Pennsylvania currently restricts hunting on Sundays as one of a slate of so-called “blue laws,” or morality statutes dating back to the 19th century that limit individuals’ activities on that day of the week. 

Committee Chairperson Anita Astorino Kulik (D-Allegheny) said she brought the bills up for a vote with great reluctance. Wednesday’s meeting was about three weeks after former Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans resigned under cloud over ethics concerns about a side business and a new director was quickly appointed from within the agency.

“Many of us do not feel that this is the appropriate time to be doing this as there are many issues going on right now with the commission that we would like to address,” Kulik said following the vote.

Kulik announced a hearing on June 3 to question commission representatives about the agency’s response to a 2019 report in which the state auditor general’s office made more than 40 recommendations related to its accounting practices and use of revenue and other resources.

“We’re not looking to hurt the commission. We’re not looking to dismantle anything,” Kulik said. “We’re just looking for answers and to make sure that public money is being used the way it’s supposed to be used. And there’s a lot of money in the game commission.”

Rep. David Maloney (R-Berks), the ranking Republican member of the committee, said he opposed the bills because of changes it would make to the trespassing provisions of the state Game and Wildlife Code. But Maloney also expressed frustration with the “lack of answers” from the commission.

Maloney earlier this month questioned whether the commission acted ethically by appointing one of Burhans’ deputies as the agency’s new executive director and suggested that the board of commissioners violated the Sunshine Act by making the decision in a closed-door meeting.

“Statewide, I got all sorts of requests on why didn’t it go out to the public? Why weren’t we picking somebody outside or at least making that known to the folks?” Maloney told the Capital-Star.

In March, Maloney questioned Burhans about a “wellness” business that he had been working on with other commission employees. In the hearing, Burhans said that he had not worked on the business during his working hours for the commission, but the revelation of the business relationship with commission employees led the board to question his continued leadership, the commission said in a statement.

“So in light of all that, I would think an agency would want to be very transparent and very thorough in how they choose somebody,” Maloney said, adding that his efforts to get answers and information from the commission have been blocked or otherwise obfuscated leading him to the conclusion that it is a toxic workplace.

“I don’t think anybody should work in a toxic environment, and especially for a commission who has an objective to serve the sportsmen in Pennsylvania. So to me, we need to clean that up,” Maloney said.

Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau said the board of commissioners acted properly in conducting an executive session to accept Burhans’ resignation and appoint a new director.

“They needed to assemble in an emergency manner,” Lau told the Capital-Star, adding that the vote to appoint Smith was taken at a public meeting. “That process has now been finalized. We consider the board to have acted in an appropriate manner at every step of the way.”

Lau said he was unfamiliar with the details of the audit but said the commission staff will prepare to answer the Game and Fisheries Committee’s questions.

In the audit, former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found that the commission:

  • Failed to properly track royalty revenue from oil and gas leases on state game lands increasing the risk of lost revenue

  • Did not track costs of labor, materials and other expenses by project making it impossible to determine the cost effectiveness of meeting goals

  • Did not include a fund balance of more than $56 million in its budgeting process.

  • Held millions of dollars in escrow accounts that were known only to some executive officers of the commission

  • Kept the escrow accounts outside of the state treasury, creating a lack of transparency and allowing the commission to avoid scrutiny of its use of the money

  • Did not have management controls in place to govern the use of escrow accounts, creating the potential for misuse, error, or fraud.

  • Had more than 100 underutilized vehicles and nearly four times as many vehicles as necessary in its fleet.

The Game Commission is funded solely through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and other sources of revenue such as oil and gas leases and timber sales. It does not receive any money from the state’s general fund. 

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