FRANKFORT, Ky. — During a time of fiscal belt tightening across state government, Kentucky's wildlife commissioner spent more than $71,000 to attend meetings across the country, running up more expenses for out-of-state trips than even the governor's chief industrial recruiter, whose job requires extensive travel.
Jonathan Gassett took some 20 trips to Washington and excursions to more than 20 other states since 2008, all with the blessing of his bosses at the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press through the Open Records Act show Gassett's travels included stops in a handful of resort areas, including Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Monterey Calif., and that he's eaten meals at Hooters in Richmond and at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Miss.
The AP found state bureaucrats have spent more than $128 million on travel since 2008 amid the worst economic recession in a generation. The recession led to a $1 billion state budget shortfall and forced deep spending cuts on government services and programs.
Some agencies slashed up to 30 percent of their budgets, but travel was largely spared. The documents showed a relatively meager $2.1 million reduction — about 7 percent — in travel spending over the past four years.
Richard Beliles, head of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Kentucky, said the reluctance of state leaders to cut travel spending "shows they're not sensitized to what the people in this recession are suffering."
Beliles called for top state government officials to crack down.
"We're struggling through the second-most negative economic climate that we've ever had, and it just boggles my mind that they would be this careless with the public's money," he said. "I think more than shocked, I think people would be outraged."
Gov. Steve Beshear said in a statement that, while some travel is unavoidable, "we expect all state agencies to closely scrutinize travel needs for their staff."
Gassett spent more on travel than any other worker in Beshear's administration since 2008. His travel bills, bolstered by another $4,000 on in-state travel, exceeded even those of Economic Development Secretary Larry Hayes, who spent $49,000 on trips to recruit new businesses into the state.
"That's a red flag," said Jim Waters, head of the Bluegrass Institute, a conservative think tank in Bowling Green. "If anybody ought to be traveling the most, it should be our economic development leaders."
Gassett referred questions to Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman Stuart Ray, who defended the travels. Ray said the trips allowed Gassett, a wildlife biologist who is paid $134,000 a year, to raise the stature of his agency and to help secure increases in federal funding.
"Thank you for recognizing that Commissioner Gassett is, in fact, a very busy man!" Ray said in a written statement. "We are quite comfortable with Dr. Gassett's expenses and the benefit that his travel has provided our state."
State records show no other executive branch department head spent nearly as much as Gassett since 2008. Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, who was among the top travelers, spent $43,000 during the period. Environmental and Public Protection Secretary Len Peters spent $37,000. Department of Workers' Claims Commissioner Dwight Lovan spent $32,000.
Ray said Gassett serves in leadership roles in professional associations that require him to travel.
"In fact, most of the travel locations you have mentioned are a result of his service in these leadership roles and are fully supported by the commission," Ray said.
Furthermore, Ray said, Gassett's work has brought $15 million in federal grants and awards to Kentucky, and helped protect more than $16 million in annual federal funding. That federal money accounts for about a third of the agency's yearly budget.
Ray credited Gassett with winning two federal grants totaling approximately $10 million since 2008 — both from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Legacy Program to purchase more than 6,000 acres of land in western Kentucky.
Waters, whose Bluegrass Institute is funded by private donations and grants, said extensive travel generally isn't necessary to receive the money.
"Having done a lot of that work, vying for grants, that should be where technology is used, not travel," Waters said. "Most grants can be applied for now online, and follow-up phone calls can be made if there are questions or if explanations are needed. You don't have to go to Washington, D.C."
Ray also said taxpayers "are receiving the best of all deals" because "no state tax dollars are appropriated to the department." Instead, he said, the agency is largely funded by fees charged for hunting and fishing licenses.
"He might want to refer to them as fees, but you can't hunt and fish without paying them," Waters said. "Yeah, it's tax dollars, and whenever there's tax dollars involved, there should be accountability and there should be results."
Some 3,750 people would have had to purchase basic hunting or fishing licenses, which cost $20 each, to cover the $75,000 spent on Gassett's travels since January 2008.