LA Wildlife Secretary Melancon Resigns, Says Reform Blocked

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana's wildlife and fisheries secretary says some people in his office have been sabotaging financial cleanup, and he's resigning Dec. 31 rather than in February.

         Charlie Melancon made the statements Wednesday in a resignation letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a copy of which he texted to The Associated Press. A November audit report raised questions about missing property and millions of dollars in agency spending. For instance, according to the audit, Gulf oil spill recovery money intended for fish testing was used for unnecessary iPads, cameras, boats and now-missing fishing equipment.

         "I accepted your appointment in the spirit of public service without the knowledge that I would be responsible for turning around a troubled state agency," Melancon wrote. "However, many of the department's previous problems persist, driven largely by the Coastal Conservation Association and individuals within the department."

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         David Cresson, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana, said the group always tries to act professionally and appropriately. "To suggest we do otherwise is insulting to all the 20,000 members" in Louisiana, he said.

         Melancon said last week that officials in Edwards' administration had asked him to leave office in mid-February, and he had agreed. He said continuing until then is a strain on his family.

         "These past 11 months have been a mental and physical grind as we have had to continuously maneuver around people within and outside the Department who were part and parcel of the corrupt practices being uncovered," he wrote.

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         He said the vast majority of department employees are "good, hard-working and honest public servants."

         Melancon has clashed with recreational fishermen, and has been criticized for changes he pushed after auditors found shoddy management of agency finances under the previous administration.

         Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said last week that the governor decided a change was required because "unnecessary public battles" were taking attention from needed reforms.

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         Edwards said the agency will continue work to fix financial problems identified by the auditors.

         Melancon answered the audit saying he ordered a "complete internal review" of his agency's operations and mismanagement of agency money or property "will not be tolerated."

         State Inspector General Stephen Street, whose office probes suspected fraud and corruption in government, also has been looking into the department. Melancon has said his office is cooperating with that review.

         The secretary wrote, "The department has contracted with CCA for a total of $3.36 million over the past 6 years, and I have concerns about some of those contracts based on what was uncovered during audits and reviews."

         Those contracts were all for two programs: creating artificial reefs and tagging fish, Cresson said. "And they've been resounding successes in every case," he said.

         Cresson said, "We did everything in our power to be a partner and a resource for this department. And we were turned away."

         In his letter, Melancon said he hopes that both agencies, and recently hired independent auditors and outside accountants "will flush out any other items of illegality or wrongdoing, if such does exist."

         – by AP Reporters Janet McConnaughey and Melinda Deslatte



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