An employee in the commissioner’s office of Alaska Department of Fish and Game landed a position as the head of South Dakota’s Fish, Game and Parks department using a title on his resume that he has repeatedly insisted he never held in Alaska.
According to a resume that longtime Fish and Game employee Kelly Hepler sent to South Dakota’s governor, he currently holds the position of Assistant Commissioner with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — a title that he denied holding when it drew him into an investigation by the Alaska Public Offices Commission, or APOC.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s office on Tuesday announced that Hepler would take over his state’s Secretary of the Department of Game, Fish and Parks in March.
The discrepancy between the title Hepler represented to the public, and the title which he technically held with Fish and Game came under scrutiny in November when he faced a slew of complaints and a hearing before APOC. Four Kenai Peninsula residents filed seven complaints against Hepler alleging that his position with Fish and Game made him subject reporting requirement to disclose gifts that he received from the Soldotna-based lobbying organization the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association has regularly waived the fee for Hepler, and most other public officials, to participate in its annual Kenai River Classic — an invitational fishing event that cost 2014 participants $4,000 a ticket.
Former Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell and Department of Natural Resources Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels amended their APOC filings to reflect the gifts from the sportfishing association after similar complaints were filed against them in August.
The complaints against Hepler were originally rejected by APOC, however the ruling was appealed and the commissioner held a hearing to discuss his title and whether it should investigate the complaints further.
During the hearing, Hepler’s defense was that he was technically a “special projects coordinator” and therefore not subject to APOC reporting requirements. APOC staff verified his assertion and the commission ultimately chose to uphold its rejection of the complaints. He said that his title of assistant commissioner was a “working title” that he sometimes uses when acting as a liaison between Fish and Game and other agencies.
“Title is important to (other agencies) and special projects coordinator doesn’t resonate a lot, so that’s where the working title came from,” Hepler said during his testimony at the APOC hearing in November.
Even as an “assistant commissioner,” Hepler would not have been required to report the gifts he received, as that title is not one of several within Fish and Game that are required by APOC rules to disclose gifts. He was listed as a “special assistant to the commissioner,” according to his biographical information on Fish and Game’s website. That position would have been required to report gifts — however he wrote in an email that he had never held the title of special assistant or assistant to the commissioner.
“My title has always been Special Projects coordinator ever since I have been in the commissioner’s office,” Hepler wrote in a Nov. 20 email to the Clarion.
Deputy Commissioner Kevin Brooks said the discrepancy between Hepler’s assertion of his actual title and the biographical information listed about him on Fish and Game’s website was an oversight and would need to be corrected. Over the course of several days in November, Fish and Game’s website was then edited to reflect Hepler’s title as “special projects coordinator” and remove references to him as both a special assistant to the commissioner and an assistant commissioner.
Still, Hepler self-identifies on his LinkedIn profile as an “assistant commissioner,” and a 2010 press release from Fish and Game announces his appointment as assistant commissioner. The door plaque hanging on the outside of his Juneau-office identifies him as an assistant commissioner.
According to his resume, he has been assistant commissioner with Alaska Fish and Game since 2010 in a position that serves as a “senior policy advisor to the commissioner on a wide variety of issues including fisheries.”
He did not return phone calls seeking clarification on Wednesday.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org