BILLINGS – Internal e-mails show top officials at the governor’s office and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks knew that a poaching investigation involved a prominent Republican who later went to work for Rep. Denny Rehberg.
But the e-mails, released Wednesday in response to a freedom of information request from The Associated Press, show no evidence that political pressure influenced the case.
Republican Randy Vogel, now on voluntary leave from his job as state director for Rep. Denny Rehberg, faces four poaching charges stemming from the killing of a young bull elk in Madison County.
He has suggested the allegations stem from Democratic attempts to smear Rehberg’s name leading up to the fall election.
Vogel’s account of the November incident differs sharply from that of game wardens. So far he’s produced no evidence to back up claims the case is politically driven.
Vogel says he has since sold the hunting rifle he was using that day, which could hamper prosecution efforts. He entered a not guilty plea on the charges on Tuesday in Madison County Justice Court in Virginia City.
On Feb. 18, about two weeks before Vogel was served with the violations, a chain of e-mails saying charges were forthcoming passed from the game warden who handled the investigation all the way up to the office of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat.
Several of the messages included a short statement from Pat Flowers, a regional administrator Fish, Wildlife and Parks, noting “Mr. Vogel was a staffer for Rep. Rehberg.”
“I alerted you on this one earlier and it is finally coming to fruition,” Flowers wrote.
No responses were documented from Schweitzer’s office or his political appointees within the wildlife agency.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said Wednesday there was never any interference with the investigation. He said Schweitzer’s office had been notified out of courtesy because of the sensitive nature of the case.
Vogel, 57, did not work for Rehberg at the time of the alleged poaching. He was the congressman’s state director from 2001 to 2007 and then reappointed to the post March 1.
On March 2, he was served with four violations, including an obstruction charge for allegedly impeding the poaching investigation.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Joe Maurier, in an interview last week, said he had one meeting about Vogel with his law enforcement division sometime before charges were filed.
Maurier said he had heard of an incident involving Vogel back in November, but didn’t get detailed information until charges were pending.
“I asked how long has this been going on, and why is it taking so long?” Maurier said. “I just asked what was going on.”
Maurier, a Schweitzer appointee, said he did not pressure anyone to speed up the process and that he never talked to the governor about the case.
After being informed of the e-mails on Wednesday, Vogel said he remained unconvinced that the investigation was aboveboard.
“I definitely do believe politics could be involved,” he said. “Where did they get the information that I was a former (Rehberg) staffer? They apparently knew that early in the investigation.”
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