- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s wildlife and fisheries secretary said Friday he’s being forced out of his Cabinet position by Gov. John Bel Edwards, months into the secretary’s work to correct widespread financial problems identified by auditors.

Charlie Melancon said he was asked by Edwards‘ administration officials, not the governor directly, to leave the office in mid-February and he agreed. He said he wasn’t given a reason for his forced exit in conversations with Edwards‘ chief of staff, Ben Nevers, and the governor’s executive counsel, Matthew Block.

“You serve at the pleasure of the governor, and if they want you to resign, you don’t have to have a reason,” Melancon said in an interview with The Associated Press. “If through the chief of staff and the governor’s executive counsel he asks that I resign, I resign.”

The comments were Melancon’s first since news leaked Wednesday that he was leaving the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. At the time, Edwards issued a statement saying he and Melancon “agreed that we should move the agency in a different direction.”

By Friday, the governor’s office provided more information, suggesting a disagreement in management styles between Edwards and his wildlife and fisheries leader.

Melancon has clashed with recreational fishermen and Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves over fisheries management since taking over as secretary when Edwards‘ term began in January. He’s also drawn criticism from lawmakers and fishing industry organizations for program cuts and agency changes he’s pushed after auditors found shoddy management of department finances under his predecessor in former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.

Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said Melancon got caught up in public feuds that distracted from efforts to correct a “deeply troubled agency.”

“From the moment Gov. Edwards took office, investigators have been at the agency conducting reviews of the previous administration’s mismanagement. After 11 months, progress to make the necessary reforms took a backseat to unnecessary public battles from the secretary,” Carbo said in a statement. “Gov. Edwards chose to move the agency in a different direction where the reforms can continue without interference under a new secretary.”

Carbo said the governor appreciates Melancon’s work and gave him the option to stay in the office for 60 days while Edwards finds a replacement. Melancon accepted, Carbo said.

Edwards said the management switch at the agency won’t derail efforts to respond to the financial problems identified by the auditors.

The review by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office - released in November - detailed extensive financial issues across the department under Melancon’s predecessor from 2010 through 2015, raising questions about millions in spending and missing state-owned property. For example, auditors say Gulf oil spill recovery money intended for fish testing instead paid for unnecessary iPads, cameras, boats and now-missing fishing equipment.

In an audit response released in November, Melancon said he ordered a “complete internal review” of his agency’s operations and mismanagement of agency money or property “will not be tolerated.”

State Inspector General Stephen Street, whose office probes suspected fraud and corruption in government, also has been looking into the department, and Melancon has said his office is cooperating with that review.

Melancon wouldn’t say Friday if he thought his ouster was tied to his work responding to the audit or the criticism it’s received from the fishing community. But a chief aide who’s worked on the internal review and response to the audit, Toby Gascon, also is being pushed out of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, according to Melancon.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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