Rossi stayed on job despite hunt probe

Commissioner says she waited for charges.

Anchorage Daily NewsJanuary 13, 2012 

A top Fish and Game official charged with illegal bear hunting was allowed to remain at work for roughly a month after his boss learned of the pending investigation.

Prosecutors filed 12 criminal misdemeanor charges against Division of Wildlife Conservation Director Corey Rossi, 51, on Thursday. A hot-button choice to lead the division because of his perceived ties to sport hunters and the family of former Gov. Sarah Palin, Rossi oversaw state efforts to manage wildlife and habitat across the state. He resigned this week.

His boss, Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, said she first learned Rossi was to be interviewed in a criminal investigation around mid-December. But she did not place Rossi on leave at that time, she said in an interview on Friday.

"I didn't know the circumstances of the investigation or whether he would be charged with anything," Campbell said. "And so I waited for the troopers to complete their investigation and let me know that they would be bringing charges before I addressed the personnel issues."

New information about the accusations against Rossi surfaced Friday as the Board of Game began meeting in downtown Anchorage. The board, aided by the state wildlife division that Rossi ran, is considering a series of controversial proposals that include expanding the snaring of bears to boost moose populations.

Rossi -- who was paid $9,262 a month, or about $111,000 a year, according to the state -- remained on the job until resigning ahead of the charges Wednesday.

It's unclear when Gov. Sean Parnell learned of the trooper inquiry into Rossi and other hunters. Parnell's spokeswoman did not respond Friday to questions such as when Parnell became aware of the investigation, what his reaction is to the charges and why Rossi wasn't placed on leave when the administration learned of the investigation.

"We're going to pass on commenting as the investigation is ongoing," Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow wrote in an email to the Daily News Thursday night.

In an interview outside the Game Board meeting Friday, Campbell said Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters informed her that the wildlife director was involved in a criminal investigation around the time Rossi was first interviewed by troopers. According to the charging document filed by state prosecutors against Rossi, that interview took place Dec. 12.

Campbell talked with Rossi about the investigation soon after the trooper interview, she said. She was not aware that he had admitted -- at least according to the charges -- to criminal acts, Campbell said.

"I just let him know that I was aware that he had been interviewed. But of course, the investigation and everything is confidential," Campbell said.

Campbell said she never talked to Parnell about the charges. Masters could not be reached for comment Friday.

'CONSCIOUS DECISION'

Troopers received a tip that Rossi might have been involved in illegal hunting activities in November 2010, according to charges.

The report came from an out-of-state agency that was conducting an undercover investigation in another state or states, said Capt. Burke Waldron, operations commander for the Alaska Wildlife Troopers. That agency is part of the Department of Public Safety and not the Department of Fish and Game.

Troopers waited until the undercover investigation was complete, in the spring, before pursuing the tip, Waldron said: "If we dove into our investigation, it would have exposed the undercover investigation."

In many ways, the investigation was no different than any inquiry into illegal hunting, Waldron said.

But when it came time to research harvest and sealing records at Fish and Game -- the state department in which Rossi was a top official -- investigators avoided searching for Rossi's records by name. They didn't want to raise red flags at the department, he said.

"We would just do more broader searches. Maybe under periods of time. Or maybe under a location," Waldron said.

The Department of Law's Office of Special Prosecutions filed the misdemeanor charges against Rossi in state court. Among the accusations: that Rossi lied in paperwork filed with Fish and Game and the state Division of Occupational Licensing about the details of a 2008 black bear hunt.

Rossi claimed to have killed three black bears that were actually killed by two out-of-state hunters, the charges say.

He was a licensed assistant big game guide at the time, according to the charges.

The state requires that hunters "seal" the skins and skulls of black bears after a hunt. The information is gathered by the Department of Fish and Game to aid wildlife management.

Rossi sealed four bears at Hunter Fisher Taxidermy in Anchorage on June 12, claiming he had killed all four, the charges say. But Robert "Bruce" Hubbard of Utah admitted to troopers that he had killed two of the bears, according to prosecutors.

Hubbard only possessed one black bear tag, the charges say.

Duane Stroupe of Oregon admitted to killing another of the bears, according to the charges. Stroupe told troopers he was good friends with Rossi and that Rossi set up the hunt, the charges say.

Rossi "admitted that he made the conscious decision to seal all four bears" under his name, the charges say.

Records for the hunt filed with the Big Game Commercial Services Board indicated that Stroupe, Hubbard and another hunter were outfitted for an unguided hunt by big game guide Joe Dilley, the charges say.

But the records falsely indicated that Stroupe and Hubbard did not kill any bears, according to prosecutors. Even though the hunt records were signed by Dilley, the big game guide, Rossi admitted that it was his handwriting on the records.

Rossi told troopers he had never met Dilley, the charges say. It's unclear how Dilley's signature appeared on the hunt records.

Waldron said he couldn't comment on Dilley's potential involvement. Troopers are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the entire hunt, he said.

'IT'S NOT ABOUT OUR PROGRAMS'

Masters contacted Campbell on Tuesday night and told her that charges likely would be filed against Rossi, Campbell said. The department chief flew to Anchorage to talk to Rossi the next day, she said.

"He offered to submit his resignation and I agreed that that would be appropriate, given the circumstances," Campbell said.

Rossi was hired in January 2009 as assistant commissioner of "abundance management," a newly created position at Fish and Game. He listed then-Gov. Sarah Palin's parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, among his top references, according to reports at the time.

Sally Heath described Rossi as "a wonderful, ethical, honest person that we have worked with for many years," The Associated Press reported in 2010.

Some critics of state policies championed by Rossi hope his legal trouble and resignation will doom efforts to expand predator control.

"I think there are some people who would like to make this about the department's programs but it isn't," Campbell said.

The allegations against Rossi center on a hunt that came before he worked for the state, she said: "This is about an individual; it's not about our programs."


Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

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