$220K payout proposed to avoid lawsuit against Pennsylvania Game Commission

| Saturday, March 8, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Game Commission proposed paying $220,000 to its retired executive director when he threatened to sue the agency, according to a letter from its chief counsel to the state Office of the Budget.

The Game Commission released a letter on Friday that was sent Dec. 26 by Brad Bechtel, the agency's chief counsel, to the Corbett administration saying the payment to Carl Roe is not compensation but a “settlement agreement in lieu of litigation.”

Roe of Carlisle retired Jan. 17. He served as executive director since 2005.

No decision has been made on proceeding with or abandoning the payment that one of Gov. Tom Corbett's top lawyers this week termed an “improper severance agreement.”

According to Bechtel's letter to Brian D. Zweiacher at the Office of the Budget legal office, the Game Commission board adopted a policy manual in December 2011 that “set forth the job duties” of the executive director. The board began “discussing the possibility of terminating Director Roe's employment” in late 2012.

“Among the reasons provided were concerns over Director Roe's job performance and whether he met the board's expectations for the individual in that position,” the letter states.

“While those discussions were taking place, Director Roe made it known ... that he believed he had fully complied with the job responsibilities set forth in the Policy Manual and that if he was removed from his position he would file ... a suit for wrongful termination.”

The board and Roe agreed to the $220,000 payment “in order to avoid litigation on this issue,” the letter states. In return, Roe agreed to voluntarily retire and “release all claims he could have brought against the board,” according to the letter.

“While it may seem unusual, I have analyzed previous situations similar to this one and believe the agreement is within a reasonable realm of settlements for these types of cases and is in the best interest of the commission,” Bechtel wrote.

The planned payment to Roe was disclosed on Friday by the Tribune-Review based on a letter from the governor's lawyers to the attorney general. Roe could not be reached.

The Attorney General's Office submitted questions to the Game Commission about the payment and will make a decision based on “form and legality,” said spokesman Joe Peters.

The office of state General Counsel James D. Schultz has asked the commission to clarify the payment because “it appeared on its face to be a severance agreement” in violation of the state's administrative code.

“This appears to be an issue between the former executive director and the Board of Game Commissioners and is independent of any agency decisions or programs,” Game Commission press secretary Travis Lau said Friday.

“Again, the sportsmen are taking it on the chin,” said Randy Sanducci of Robinson, president of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania.

“No matter what we do, half of the people are going to love you and half of them won't,” said Bob Schlemmer of Export, the Game Commission president. He declined questions on the payment and referred them to Bechtel.

Roe's final salary as executive director of the Game Commission was $121,116. He left with a lump-sum cash withdrawal of $89,926, representing his contributions to the pension system plus 4 percent interest since he joined the agency in 2001, state records show. His annual pension from the state is $29,236, according to state retirement board records.

Roe spent 30 years in the Army, retiring as a colonel.

The proposed $220,000 payment was intended to “induce” early retirement and get Roe to “agree to terms of confidentiality,” the general counsel's office contended in a Jan. 30 letter to the attorney general.

“It shows this agency acts like a rogue agency, not under control of anybody,” said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, chairman of the House State Government Committee. “Outrageous” actions such as this spur legislative interest in establishing some state oversight of the Game Commission, he said.

Metcalfe favors requiring commission regulations to be approved by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, which considers other state agencies' regulations. He said he would support merging the Game Commission with the Fish and Boat Commission. A legislative research report on that idea is slated for release March 19.

“Rogue” was a description also used by Rep. David Maloney, R-Berks County, a member of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, who supports state approval of regulations but not merger of the agencies.

“Why would you pay a man a quarter-million dollars after he was paid a salary and he resigns? Why is that? Since when is there severance pay?

“There's such loose oversight of this agency,” Maloney said.

Joe Kelley, a retiree and hunter from New Alexandria, said perspective is needed.

Critics “jump on the Game Commission for $220,000 when there's the Turnpike Commission wasting hundreds of millions of dollars.” Kelley asks why, despite indictments of top turnpike officials for alleged corruption, there isn't an ongoing state investigation of the turnpike, another independent agency.

And former Liquor Control Board CEO Joe Conti, 59, left the LCB in February 2013 and began drawing his pension but was rehired almost immediately as a temporary “emergency” employee for $80 an hour until July. He and two other former top LCB officials reportedly have been under investigation by the Ethics Commission for accepting gifts and favors from vendors with business before the LCB.

“They (Game Commission) do a lot of good things with game management and conservation,” Kelley said.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter and Michael Hasch is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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