News

Minnesota's chief conservation officer resigned Friday following an audit that found his agency misspent public money and illegally solicited donations for a game warden conference last year.

Col. Mike Hamm walked into the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources headquarters in St. Paul and submitted a letter of retirement, ending 36 years with the agency. For the past five years he has headed the division that enforces fish, game and other natural resources laws.

Hamm's retirement came a day after he was allowed to read an investigative report about himself at a meeting with DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten and DNR's personnel director, Denise Legato.

Legato would not discuss the meeting, and Holsten was out of town and unavailable for comment.

The investigative report has not been made public. But an earlier Legislative Audit concluded that a conflict-of-interest law was broken and $300,000 in public money had been misspent on the week-long event that featured a golf outing, fishing on Lake Mille Lacs, a fish fry and other entertainment.

Hamm, who is 55 and eligible for retirement, has served in the DNR since 1972, first as a parks worker, and since 1977 as a conservation officer and supervisor. In May, he and his wife, Capt. Cathy Hamm, a supervisor in the enforcement division, were placed on paid administrative leave during the investigations, which were prompted by a Star Tribune story about the conference spending.

His resignation may be just the beginning of the shakeup at the DNR. Legato said several other DNR employees face investigations as a result of the investigative findings. It's still undecided what will happen to Capt. Hamm, she said.

Mike Hamm did not return telephone calls for comment. But his friend Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said Hamm is a scapegoat who was pushed out the door -- and that high-level DNR officials deserve the boot instead.

"Holsten has said he takes responsibility, but what does that mean if nothing is going to happen to him?" said Cornish, referring to a comment the commissioner made at a legislative hearing.

Other legislators had critical words about Hamm and DNR higher-ups.

"Minnesota can't have a chief law enforcement officer who doesn't know the law and doesn't enforce it -- that's the bottom line," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, chairwoman of an environmental oversight committee that held hearings on the DNR conference spending.

"There is generally sloppy management here that needs to be fixed," added Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, chairman of the Legislative Audit Commission. He said that top officials should be held accountable.

The investigative report by Minneapolis attorney Tammy Pust has not been released because officials say they must redact non-public information. Legislators said they had not seen the report. The redacted version is expected to be released next week, officials said.

In previous statements, Hamm has defended the conference spending and fundraising.

"It was a fantastic opportunity to bring conservation officers from North America to showcase Minnesota, but also [for] Minnesota conservation officers to walk away with excellent training," Hamm told auditors in June.

The 2007 North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association conference in St. Paul featured a week of social events and three days of training for 204 state conservation officers and about 212 of their peers from across the United States and Canada. Family members and other guests also attended.

In May, the Star Tribune reported that the DNR, which played a key role in the conference, spent public money and used state employees to plan the conference, raise money and staff the events. Auditors uncovered many more details, including that the state paid inflated registration fees for Minnesota officers and paid employees to take guests on fishing and golf outings.

Former DNR commissioner Gene Merriam has said he didn't authorize spending state money to sponsor the conference but supported sending officers for training.

Although the DNR's support put the conference in the black, the $76,000 in profits went to the state conservation officers union and the international association -- none to the state.

Hamm served across Minnesota, first as a field officer in Worthington and later in St. Cloud, and in 1988 became a training officer in New Ulm and then the statewide training coordinator based in St. Paul.

He was the district supervisor for Mille Lacs Lake in the late 1990s during the legal dispute that granted Indian hunting and fishing rights under an 1837 treaty. He also served in Two Harbors and St. Paul in other supervisory jobs before being named head of the enforcement division in 2003. His salary was $105,000 a year.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090



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