State employee's title called into question during Wednesday's APOC hearing

What's in a name?

It’s all semantics when it comes to one state employee’s defense against being required to file certain financial disclosure forms required of public officials with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, or APOC.

 

Kelly Hepler, whose title with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is either “assistant commissioner” or “special projects coordinator,” was the subject of a Wednesday APOC hearing on several complaints that claim he should have filed a Public Official Financial Disclosure form annually from 2009-2013 and, on those forms, he should have disclosed that he had received gifts from the politically influential Soldotna-based Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

His title as “assistant commissioner” is a deviation from one that he has previously held and that would be required by state law to file a financial disclosure form, that of “special assistant” to the commissioner.

At issue were appeals of seven complaints filed by four Kenai Peninsula residents against Hepler. The complaints, originally filed in late August, were rejected by APOC staff on the basis that Hepler’s actual title with Fish and Game is “Special Projects Coordinator” and his current job title is not subject to the state’s Public Official Financial Disclosure reporting requirements.

The original complaints against Hepler were part of about 200 complaints that were filed with APOC regarding the Kenai River Sportfishing Association’s Kenai River Classic and other outreach and lobbying of public officials on fisheries management issues. The vast majority of those complaints, including the ones against Hepler, were rejected.

In October, Homer residents Garland Blanchard, Eric Ball and Emily Chalup appealed the rejection, citing extensive documentation from Fish and Game’s personnel directory and the directory of state officials, that referred to Hepler as an “Assistant Commissioner.”

According to their complaints, Blanchard, Chalup and Ball assert that Hepler should have filed the annual financial disclosure forms from 2009-2013 and that he should have disclosed gifts he received from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association on his disclosure forms.

Staff at APOC again recommended rejecting the complaints as unfounded.

“Staff believes Mr. Hepler is using what is commonly referred to as a ‘working title’ on websites and in certain directories. Staff has not traditionally recognized working titles applied by departments or individuals and instead refers to the State Employees Directory and human resources departments for official titles,” according to a staff summary presented on Wednesday to APOC.

Even if APOC staff did recognize Hepler’s title as “Assistant Commissioner,” he still would not have been subject to the state’s reporting requirements as that title is not listed under the definitions of those required to file the public official disclosures.

APOC has not investigated whether Hepler should have disclosed his gifts from the sportfishing association as it does not believe that Hepler would have been required to report the gifts.

Hepler’s current title is a slight deviation from one that would be required to file financial disclosure forms — that of the “special assistant to the commissioner.”

Hepler previously filled that role for a prior commissioner of Fish and Game, but that position is currently unfilled, according to Fish and Game’s website.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association did list Hepler as a public official and reported gifts that it had given to him according to a 2011 report filed with APOC.

However, Hepler corroborated APOC staff’s assessment that his title as an assistant to the commissioner was a “working title.”

During his testimony to the commissioners Wednesday, Hepler said he works with a lot of Outside organizations in his role with Fish and Game and those organizations put a special emphasis on his position title.

“Title is important to them and special projects coordinator doesn’t resonate a lot, so that’s where that working title came from,” Hepler said.

 

Reach Rashah McChesney at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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