FRANKFORT, Ky. (WHAS11) —Thursday and Friday, two state game wardens are making their case before the state’s Personnel Cabinet that their suspensions from the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife were really retaliation and not dereliction of duty.
Conservation Officers Rodney Milburn and Thomas Blackwell already served their suspensions of 60 days with pay, and then another five days without pay for Blackwell and 15 days without pay for Milburn.
Milburn was also demoted from sergeant to officer.
The department claimed their punishment was for their handling of a November 2015 poaching investigation in Breckinridge County, which led to the discovery of several large bags of marijuana.
However, a judge ruled it an illegal search and seizure and dismissed the case.
The case was adjudicated in December 2016, but neither Milburn nor Blackwell were reprimanded back then.
In fact, around that time, the head of wildlife law enforcement, Colonel Rodney Coffey awarded Blackwell with District Officer of the Year.
Fast forward to November 2017, the suspension came down just five days after an email went out to membership with the Kentucky Conservation Officers Association, F.O.P. Lodge 100.
Milburn is the KCOA president and Blackwell the KCOA secretary.
Their email raised concerns over what they called interference by Col. Coffey and Capt. Richard Skaggs in a baiting case involving the chair of the Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Commission, Jimmy Bevins.
On January 8, 2017, Conservation Officer Josh Robinson responded to Elkhorn Creek in Frankfort to investigate approximately 50 pounds of cracked corn thrown out on the bank opposite from where a small group was hunting ducks.
“That was just to prevent us from hunting is all that was thrown out for,” duck hunter Andy Ingram recalled.
The stretch of corn ran along Bevins property line in the Two Creeks subdivision.
That forced the hunters to leave because it’s illegal to hunt in a baited area.
However, it’s also illegal to purposely bait an area, which is not your land, to prevent hunters from hunting.
Robinson suspected Bevins did just that and included notes in the case file that months earlier Bevins actually told him that “he was going to put out corn to stop the hunters from hunting.”
Also, in the case file, body cam video with neighbors as well as conversations Robinson secretly recorded with his superiors, including Col. Coffey and Capt. Skaggs.
Robinson and a partner interviewed neighbors who had no complaints about the hunting, some even saying they didn’t even know there was hunting going on on the other side of the creek.
During a recorded conversation with Capt. Skaggs, Skaggs repeatedly warned Robinson that there was no case.
“I know who threw it out up here and down that bank, he [Bevins] did, but that’s on his property,” Skaggs said.
Actually, it wasn’t Bevins’ property at all.
Franklin County records show at that time the commissioner’s property line did not extend out to the creek; however, the I-Team found that it does now.
In February of this year, Bevins bought nearly three more acres and his land now extends out into the creek.
Meanwhile, Robinson also recorded his conversation with Coffey at headquarters in early February 2017.
Coffey called the case against the commissioner a stretch.
“Let’s face it, it is what it is, but this is the chairman of the board,” Coffey said.
Following up on Robinson’s response of “It doesn’t matter,” Coffey pointed out, “Well, it does on how we move forward, absolutely does.”
Despite advice from his superiors not to, Robinson decided to cite Bevins months later in December 2017.
“As far as a PR nightmare is concerned, it’s coming,” Robinson told Coffey. “Those guys [the hunters] know who he [Bevins] works for, they know his position, and what he should be standing for.”
Bevins deferred our questions to his attorney, Charles Jones, who stated in a letter to the I-Team that the area wasn’t an appropriate place for hunting and that Bevins and his family regularly enjoyed feeding the waterfowl near his home.
Jones also wrote that the case against his client was dismissed on February 2.
That is true, but Bevins didn’t get off free and clear.
He had to agree to pay $184 in court costs within 90 days, as well as agree not to obstruct hunting and to obey the rules on feeding wildlife.
Instead of the controversy melting away, it snowballed with the suspensions of Officers Milburn and Blackwell.
Their email to KCOA members is included in a whistleblower lawsuit filed against the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, which falls under the Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet.
“They were disciplined in retaliation for protected activity, for whistleblowing,” Attorney Ben Basil, who is representing Milburn and Blackwell, said.
Also attached to the lawsuit are charges by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission against Capt. Skaggs and Col. Coffey.
Basil argues that if his clients’ handling of the poaching case in November 2015 was so wrong, why then was Blackwell recognized as District Officer of the Year, and why did the suspension come down a full two years after that arrest, and a year after the case was dismissed.
“No punishment and apparently no investigation,” Basil said. “The department decided that they wanted to punish these gentlemen and then went looking for a reason.”
The lawsuit seeks damages, compensation of lost wages, as well as Milburn being elevated back to his position as sergeant.
With their appeal before the state’s Personnel Cabinet, Milburn and Blackwell want their suspensions erased from their records.