Another Macho B casualty

It seems that no one is going to come out looking good when all is said and done with Macho B. Here’s the latest press release from Arizona Game and Fish.

March 19, 2010

Game and Fish dismisses employee involved in jaguar capture

PHOENIX – The Arizona Game and Fish Department today dismissed one of its employees as a result of the department’s ongoing internal administrative investigation into the events surrounding last year’s capture of the jaguar known as Macho B.

Dismissed was Thornton W. Smith, 40, a wildlife technician for 12 years with the department and one of the field biologists involved in the placement and monitoring of traps used in a black bear and mountain lion research project that resulted in the initial capture of Macho B.

The department dismissed Smith based on the employee’s own interview statements made during the course of the internal investigation. The statements related to Smith’s conduct that occurred several weeks after the capture, recapture and euthanizing of Macho B.

Smith’s statements and further investigation confirmed that he did not comply with verbal and written directions issued by supervisors and that he admitted to knowingly misleading federal investigators regarding facts surrounding the original capture of Macho B.

The department’s official letter that documents the grounds for dismissal was delivered to Smith earlier today.

Smith admitted that he failed to comply with verbal and written direction from supervisors not to communicate with anyone (other than investigators) regarding the original capture of the jaguar due to the fact that a federal law enforcement investigation had begun.

In his statements to department investigators, Smith stated that he talked about the capture with Emil McCain, a biologist with the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, even though Smith had previously been instructed not to communicate with anyone regarding the subject of the ongoing investigation. According to Smith, McCain had assisted Smith in selecting bear and mountain lion trap site locations for the research project. Smith alleged that McCain disclosed to him after the capture had occurred that McCain had placed jaguar scat at two camera sites in the vicinity of where Macho B was captured. Smith also alleged that during his discussions with McCain, the two of them concocted a false story about the capture for federal investigators, and that McCain later allegedly went to the area where Macho B was captured and removed all traces of jaguar scat so that the capture scene matched the story.

Smith also admitted to Game and Fish investigators that he had knowingly misled federal investigators from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when he told them the story he and McCain had allegedly made up denying that jaguar scat had been placed in the vicinity of the Macho B capture site.

Yet in his interview with department investigators, Smith alleged that McCain “went in and removed whatever scat he left, whatever it was. You know, I don’t know what got eaten. Because by the time we actually caught, you know, the jaguar, the scat by the camera had been kicked over and knocked. I don’t know what was left. He went in and cleaned it up, made it look like our story.”

When asked by department investigators if he had knowingly misled the federal investigators, Smith said, “Yah. Yah. We (McCain and Smith) came up with a story, and I just, it’s been eating on me and I just couldn’t live with it.”

Upon further questioning by department investigators, Smith went on to allege, “We made a different story to protect the department, to protect Emil, to protect my association with Emil, about, you know, not leaving jaguar scat, but (tape recording inaudible). There was no scat at all placed anywhere. The one scat I did find he pointed out was an old one, which it was, but you know, I can’t live with that. You know, I did it.”

The Department has concluded that the employee’s conduct is cause for dismissal as allowed by Arizona Revised Statutes 41-770 and includes violations of the standards of conduct for state employees found in Arizona Administrative Code R2-5-501.

Smith has been restricted from working on field activities since July 16, 2009, and the department placed him on paid administrative leave on March 8 pending a determination on what final administrative action would be taken. On March 15, the department issued Smith an official notice of charges of misconduct letter. Today, Smith submitted to the department his intent to resign his position. The department refused to accept Smith’s resignation as allowed by Arizona Administrative Code R2-5-901 and issued a letter of dismissal to him.

Department officials added that the Game and Fish internal investigation cannot be considered completed until the department has an opportunity to review whatever findings may come out of an ongoing federal investigation being conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. However, department officials noted that as the one year anniversary of the initiation of the federal investigation approaches, the department had reached a point in its own investigation where it could no longer delay taking appropriate action.

The department has determined that no agency personnel directed any person to capture a jaguar, and that the department’s actions related to the capture were lawful.

Information about events related to Macho B can be found at www.azgfd.gov/MachoB.

Related Questions and Answers:

1.  Why did the Arizona Game and Fish Department wait until now to dismiss Smith from state service?

The department has repeatedly stated that it would not take action to interfere with the ongoing federal investigation. The department believed that release of the details of the department’s allegations against one of its employees could adversely impact the federal investigation.  At this point, almost a year after the start of that investigation, the department expects that the federal authorities have completed their investigation, and therefore the department’s actions today are unlikely to cause harm to it.

2.  Did the department inform federal investigators of the statements made by Smith during the department’s own internal investigation?

No. Neither the department nor the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wanted to risk blending the department’s administrative investigation with the service’s investigation. It has been the department’s understanding that by requiring the department’s employee to provide complete and factual information during the interview, the employee’s statements could not be used against him or her in a criminal prosecution.  This is required under the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Garrity v. New Jersey.

3.  Will the department provide for public review the investigative material it collected during the course of its own internal investigation?

We will make our decision to release any document or portion thereof based on a determination whether the release would compromise the ongoing investigation.

4.  Why did the department elect to dismiss Smith rather than allowing him to resign?

Mr. Smith’s actions were deserving of dismissal.

5.  Have any other department employees received disciplinary action as a result of the department’s internal investigation?

Not at this point in the ongoing investigation.

6.  When will the results of the federal investigation be made available to the public?

The results of the federal investigation are under the control of the federal government. The department has no information on if or when the federal government will make its results available to the public.

7.  What is the status of the federal court lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity claiming that the Arizona Game and Fish Department does not possess the necessary federal permits to engage in jaguar management activities?

The parties are awaiting a decision from the court on the department’s motion to dismiss.

3/20/09 Here’s the AZ Daily Star’s take on the story:

G&F worker is fired for alleged lying, cover-up in jaguar capture

Tony Davis Arizona Daily Star

The state fired a worker Friday for lying to federal investigators about the fact that the U.S.’s last known wild jaguar was lured to his capture and for concocting a cover-up story, officials said.

The employee, Thornton W. Smith, 40, said biologist Emil McCain told him he had put jaguar scat at two sites near the area where Macho B was captured a year ago southwest of Tucson, the Arizona Game and Fish Department revealed late Friday.

Smith, a Game and Fish wildlife technician, also said McCain later went to the area where Macho B was captured, removed all traces of jaguar scat and “made it look like our story,” the department said.

“Yah. Yah. We (he and McCain) came up with a story, and I just, it’s been eating on me, and I just couldn’t live with it,” the department quoted Smith as telling its internal investigators.

Game and Fish initially said the capture, which was followed days later by the jaguar’s death, was accidental.

McCain, reached by the Arizona Daily Star by telephone late Friday afternoon, said “no comment” and hung up. At the time of the jaguar’s capture, he was working for a nonprofit group that had a contract with Game and Fish.

Smith couldn’t be reached for comment after the department released the information late Friday. Smith’s former home phone number is disconnected.

Federal authorities are investigating Macho B’s capture and whether it violated the Endangered Species Act.

One federal agency, the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, concluded earlier this year that the capture by state workers was intentional and that the evidence points to criminal wrongdoing.

That agency said in January that the evidence against an Arizona Game and Fish Department subcontractor – and possibly a Game and Fish employee – is in the hands of federal prosecutors in Tucson. The inspector general’s report does not name individuals who could be liable. However, the description of the Arizona Game and Fish subcontractor matches McCain in several respects.

Smith may be safe from federal criminal prosecution because he talked to the state, Game and Fish said Friday. The department said it never told federal investigators about Smith’s statements. It also said it believes that because the state required its employee to “provide complete and factual information,” his statements can’t be used against him in a criminal prosecution.

Smith was fired partly because he violated written and verbal orders by talking to McCain about the capture despite the U.S. investigation, Game and Fish said.

The firing and revelation of Smith’s statements comes almost a year after the U.S. launched its criminal probe into Macho B’s Feb. 18, 2009, capture and subsequent release, which was followed by the jaguar’s recapture due to health problems and euthanization 12 days later. The captures occurred near the Arizona-Sonora border in a remote canyon south of Arivaca.

Smith and another Game and Fish wildlife technician came upon the snared jaguar in the morning of Feb. 18 as they checked a series of snares that were part of a Game and Fish study. After Smith fired a sedative into the jaguar, the pair went to work freeing his leg from the snare and attaching a collar.

E-mails written in the weeks before the capture showed that McCain, Smith and others were soliciting instructions on how to sedate and otherwise handle a captured jaguar. They also received instructions on how to use the collar in case a jaguar was caught.

Because of the incident, Smith, a 12-year department employee, had been on administrative leave since March 8, 2010. He had been restricted from working on field activities since July 16, 2009. He is the only Game and Fish employee to be disciplined in the case “at this point in the ongoing investigation,” the agency said Friday.

Smith’s reported statements, as relayed by Game and Fish, amount to confirmation of many of the details that a research technician associated with McCain’s group, the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, told the Arizona Daily Star nearly a year ago. Janay Brun’s statements led directly to the federal criminal investigation.

Brun told the Star McCain had ordered her to place female jaguar scat at the eventual Macho B capture site two weeks before the first capture, to try to lure the male jaguar to that site. She said at the time that Smith was present when this conversation occurred.

Smith’s reported statements made no mention of this specific incident. But they did offer additional information that the capture was deliberate.

Smith also said to state investigators that, “We made a different story to protect the department, protect Emil, to protect my association with Emil, about, you know, not leaving jaguar scat, but (tape recording inaudible),” Game and Fish’s news release said. “But you know, I can’t live with that. You know I did it.”

Game and Fish repeated Friday its earlier statements that no agency officials directed anyone to capture a jaguar, “and that the department’s actions related to the capture were lawful.”

After Macho B’s capture, he roamed in the wild for a few days, but had slowed down dramatically a week later for reasons that have never been fully and publicly determined. He was recaptured and euthanized on March 2, after Phoenix Zoo veterinarians concluded he had unrecoverable kidney failure.

A University of Arizona veterinary diagnostic lab later issued a report challenging that conclusion. But the Inspector General’s Office reported this year that two other vet labs, at the University of California-Davis and the U.S. Geological Survey, confirmed there was kidney failure. Those reports haven’t been publicly released.

Game and Fish said it did not allow Smith to resign Friday rather than be fired. The department said it held off taking action against him until now because it didn’t want to hurt the federal probe.

“We made a different story to protect the department, protect Emil, to protect my association with Emil, about, you know, not leaving jaguar scat, but (tape recording inaudible) … But you know, I can’t live with that. You know I did it.”

Thornton W. Smith, in a statement to internal investigators

Arizona Daily Star reporter Tim Steller contributed to this report. Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com

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