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Ethics agency alleges Fish and Game official violated gift limit

April 12, 2012 |  1:09 pm

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The president of the California Fish and Game Commission broke the law when he accepted a guided cougar hunt in Idaho as a gift, the state ethics agency alleged Thursday.

Daniel W. Richards belatedly repaid the Flying B Ranch for the $6,800 hunt after The Times and other media outlets reported about the gift, so the enforcement chief of the state Fair Political Practices Commission decided to issue a warning letter instead of seeking fines. Even so, Richards faced a call for his resignation.

State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said the ethics violation "makes him even more ineffective as a commissioner, so I believe the right thing for him to do is to step down for the good of California.''

The state Political Reform Act prohibits state officials from accepting gifts of more than $420 from certain sources, which in the case of Fish and Game officials includes hunting clubs, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission’s Gary Winuk.

Officials can repay the gift within 30 days and still comply with the law, but Richards wrote a check for the Jan. 12 hunt more than 30 days later, on March 5, and only after a complaint was filed with the commission, records show.

"Your actions violated the Act because you received a gift over the limit," Winuk wrote to Richards. "However, because you did repay the donor relatively soon after receipt of the gift, although after the 30-day window for repayment prescribed by the Act, we have decided to close the case."

Winuk noted that the violation could have resulted in a $5,000 fine, and penalties may be sought if there is future misconduct.

The letter is the latest fallout from Richards’ decision to shoot a mountain lion in Idaho, where it is legal. Forty state legislators recently called for his resignation, saying the killing showed poor judgment given that the killing of cougars for sport is outlawed in California.

Richards, who posted a photo of himself holding the dead cat, had previously rejected calls for his resignation, saying he had acted legally in killing the animal. He repaid the owner of the ranch "in an abundance of caution," even though he believes the hunt was not covered by the gift limit rule, according to his attorney, Stephen G. Larson.

"Mr. Richards is confident that no wrongdoing has occurred,'' Larson wrote in an April 4 letter to the FPPC.

Larson denied that his client had violated the gift law because the hunt was eventually paid for, Richards did not know it was a gift at the time and there is no evidence that the giver could benefit from Larson's position as a state commissioner.

The ranch is owned by Burlingame Industries, a Rialto company headed by Robert C. Burlingame that also includes a roofing tile business.

Larson said Richards also was not aware that the ranch or Burlingame Industries had any interest under the jurisdiction of the state Fish and Game Department.

Robert Burlingame also has an ownership interest in Mountain Lakes Resort near Lytle Creek in California, records show. The resort has regularly received permits from the Fish and Game Department for the importation of rainbow trout, but the permit is issued by a staff member, not the commission, an agency official said.

The investigation was launched in response to a complaint filed with the FPPC by Kathy Bowler, former executive director of the California Democratic Party, who cited press reports that Richards flew to the Flying B Ranch for a bird hunt, but that he was offered a lion hunt at no extra charge by the manager of the ranch.

The ranch’s website lists bird-hunting packages for $3,200 to $5,100, while the normal cost for a mountain lion hunt is $6,800.

RELATED:

Cougar killing puts spotlight on head of game panel

Fish and Game official said mountain lion tasted like pork loin

Hunters show support for Fish and Game commissioner who killed cougar

-- Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento

Photo: Fish and Game Commission President Daniel Richards arrives at recent meeting of the panel at the Mission Inn in Riverside. Photo: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles

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