- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

RICHMOND (AP) — The state is investigating whether officials at the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries improperly charged about $12,000 in expenses for a hunting trip to Africa on state credit cards.

The four officials who went on the 17-day expedition to Zimbabwe said it was supposed to focus on global game management and conservation.

After Secretary of Natural Resources W. Tayloe Murphy Jr. withdrew state support for the trip, it became a vacation safari that bagged a white rhinoceros, an impala, a warthog, a kind of antelope called a nyala and a blue wildebeest. It also provided insights into the relationship between hunting and conservation in one of the world’s poorest countries.

About two weeks before the officials departed, Mr. Murphy ruled that the state would not sponsor the trip, which ended up being financed primarily by the department’s board chairman, Daniel A. Hoffler, a Tidewater developer.

An anonymous tip to the state fraud hot line reported that three high-ranking officials in the department already had bought about $12,000 worth of clothing, luggage and equipment for the trip, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported late last week. The newspaper said it was told of the claims on the condition of anonymity.

Game officials say all of the purchases are being used by the agency.

Mr. Murphy told the Times-Dispatch he won’t make any judgment on the purchases until after the state’s internal auditor completes his investigation and issues his conclusions.

“There is a distinction between doing something improper and a decision with which one disapproves. … No one has shown me any evidence of any wrongdoing at the game department,” he said.

Mr. Murphy determined that the trip was not necessary to improve game management and conservation in Virginia.

“We were uncomfortable with it,” said David K. Paylor, deputy director of natural resources.

The governor or his Cabinet secretaries must approve any state-sponsored trip outside of the United States.

Mr. Hoffler said the trip would have been legitimate state business for an agency that has an important role in policing global trade in animal poaching and smuggling.

The charge of credit-card misuse, he said, is part of a broader vendetta by a group of disgruntled game wardens and their allies.

“There are outside people who would like to see the department not go forward,” said Mr. Hoffler, whom Democratic Gov. Mark Warner appointed to the board in 2002.

Mr. Hoffler and other game officials say they want the department to become more modern and professional. In the past, they say, the agency has operated through fiefdoms with little public supervision.

Critics say the department is wasting public funds and rewarding political cronies while neglecting game wardens and other assets of the $45 million agency, which is financed primarily by fees paid by hunters, anglers and boaters.

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