Rehberg Staffer Disputes Poaching Charges

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – A top aide to Rep. Denny Rehberg who is facing poaching charges insisted on his innocence Thursday and said the allegations are being used to try to hurt the congressman politically.

Randy Vogel is due in a Madison County court next week for allegedly poaching a young bull elk last November. On March 2, he was issued four citations that carry a possible prison sentence — a day after being named Rehberg’s state director.

In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Vogel denied the allegations and said the timing of the citations “was suspicious.”

He also said an audio recording of Rehberg’s Democratic opponent, Dennis McDonald, talking about the investigation before it was made public was proof the allegations were being used for political purposes. McDonald spoke about the allegations at a March 3 Democratic event in Yellowstone County.

“He’s trying to get Rehberg through me,” said Vogel, who added that he has since taken a voluntary leave without pay.

He said he was speaking out against the advice of his lawyer, Lance Lovell of Billings, because he felt it was important to set the record straight.

“I don’t believe in coincidences like that in politics,” he said regarding the timing of the citations. “It just doesn’t happen.”

McDonald is campaigning for the Democratic nomination to oppose Rehberg this fall. He told the AP that he never had any discussions with state wildlife officials about Vogel’s case and was merely repeating rumors he heard in the ranching community.

McDonald said the suggestion that he had been inappropriately passed information about the case was “absurd.”

“That’s just the Rehberg spin machine at work,” he said.

Yet McDonald, too, has injected politics into the case. He issued a statement Wednesday questioning claims by Rehberg’s office that the congressman was unaware of the poaching charges when he appointed Vogel as state director.

Before entering the race against Rehberg, McDonald chaired the Montana Democratic Party when the organization’s director was Art Noonan. Noonan was later named deputy director for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks — an appointment that Republicans said smacked of cronyism on the part of the state’s Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer.

Fish Wildlife and Parks officials have denied politics played a role in their pursuit of Vogel’s case. Wardens for the agency say Vogel illegally shot a young bull, or spike elk, during a Nov. 17 hunting trip near Ennis and abandoned the carcass.

Vogel is due to appear in court in Virginia City on Tuesday on four charges: harvesting a spike bull elk during closed season, abandoning the carcass in the field, killing more than one elk without authorization and obstruction of a peace officer.

His version of events differs sharply from that offered by state officials.

He was with three other hunters that day — including another Rehberg staffer, Mike Waite — and a ranch employee.

Vogel said that he shot a cow elk, gutted it and carted it out of the field, but never saw any spike elk.

However, that morning, Vogel said the hunting party came across a vehicle on nearby U.S. Forest Service land that they suspected belonged to other hunters.

Vogel said he later heard at least two shots fired — just before a group of elk ran in his direction, including the animal he harvested.

That night, a state game warden came to Vogel’s motel room to ask about a killed spike elk. Vogel claims he cooperated with the warden and offered to return to the site the next day, but then didn’t hear from state officials until Jan. 15, when five wardens showed up at his Billings home with a search warrant authorizing them to seize his .270 caliber rifle.

“They said they had found a round in the elk, a .270,” he said.

Vogel said that by that time, he had sold the weapon for $350 to an anonymous buyer at a gun show.