Commission levies largest fine in case against Sharon

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By Jeff Moore

A former conservation officer for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources will pay a $10,000 fine after he accepted an plea agreement saying he violated the Executive Branch Code of Ethics for using his influence to benefit himself and others in his commercial fishing business.

Dennis Sharon of Worthville also will receive a reprimand and waived any right to appeal the ethics violations.

John R. Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, said the fine is the largest assessed by the panel. The $10,000 penalty was one of two assessed by the panel Monday in ethics violation cases.

“The number of charges contributed to the size of the penalty,” Steffen said Tuesday, but added that these were serious because they involved a law enforcement officer.

He said commission members also have wanted to move to assess higher penalties for ethics violations.

In a Tuesday interview, Sharon called the ethics violation charges “state-sanctioned extortion ... None of the charges are true.”

Sharon said he only agreed to the settlement because fighting the allegations through a two-week hearing process before the ethics commission would be more expensive than the $10,000 fine.

He said he has been a law enforcement officer since 1973 and that no one would say they have seen him abuse his authority.

Steffen said Sharon’s case was particularly serious because it involved a person who was supposed to be enforcing the regulations he violated. These ethics violation charges are for activities between April 2007 and April 2011, according to the original commission complaint.

According to a settlement agreement released Monday by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, Sharon admitted that he sold about 464 pounds of paddlefish roe to an individual that hehad served warrants on as part of a multi-state law enforcement operation called “Skid Roe” in April 2007.

“Sharon failed to avoid conduct which may lead the general public to believe that he was using his position as a conservation officer to further his own interests,” the ethics commission documents state.

The ethics documents also show that Sharon admitted to commercially fishing with a helper on the Ohio River within 50 yards of the Kentucky River, a violation of state fishing regulations.

“Such activities provided Sharon with financial gain and benefit of fishing a restricted area that was not otherwise accessible by other commercial fishermen,” according to the ethics commission. It also states Sharon used his influence to protect his designated helper, allowing him benefits other commercial fishermen were restricted from.

“Sharon conducted these illegal activities despite his requirement as a law enforcement officer to uphold the law and his requirement as a conservation officer to enforce fish and wildlife laws and regulations,” according to the ethics commission.

The ethics documents state Sharon admitted that he also moved his commercial fishing nets into a restricted area after he was informed by a commanding officer of the measurement restrictions around the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio rivers.

The ethics commission document goes on to state Sharon admitted to fishing in counties where he was assigned to his official duties after being informed by his supervisors that he could not conduct his commercial business in these areas. “Yet Sharon was observed on multiple occasions by the public and law enforcement officers participating in commercial fishing activities in Carroll County, Kentucky, a county in which he routinely issued citations, some of which involved fishing related citations,” the ethics commission material states.

Sharon also admitted through the plea agreement to confronting two commercial fishermen at Point Park, while in uniform and in his commissioned vehicle, for placing nets too close to his commercial nets at the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio rivers and threatened to write them citations for the conduct and confiscate their nets so they could not fish in that location any longer.

Sharon said Tuesday that some of the charges in the ethics violation complaint are “out and out lies.” Others, he said, did occur but “not the way they said they did.” He said one violation was based on an unwritten rule and he asked how something like that could be enforced.

“I would never have done anything like they said I have done,” Sharon said.

There were several other alleged violations of the Executive Branch Code of Ethics that Sharon did not admit that he violated, but agreed not to contest them for the settlement.

According to the ethics commission, these include:

• Using information gained while conducting his official duties and talking with commercial fishermen in confidence about fishing in waters at the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers “to benefit other fishermen and himself to further his own economic interests.”

• Fishing with expired 2009 commercial fishing tags, discovered by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. When confronted by Indiana DNR conservation officers, the ethics charges state that Sharon claimed to have a valid 2010 commercial fishing license but refused to show it. Documents show this occurred on March 5, 2010, and Sharon did not apply for the license until March 8, 2010. Sharon also told officers that he did not have any other nets in the waters, yet Indiana DNR officers later seized a net with 2009 expired tags allegedly belonging to Sharon at the mouth of the Little Kentucky River.”

“Sharon was charged criminally for these offenses in Switzerland County, Indiana, on March 2, 2012,” the ethic scommission reported.

• Being stopped by Indiana DNR conservation officers for commercially fishing in restricted waters in Carroll County. They allegedly seized gill nets and more than 12 pounds of paddlefish roe. Again, Sharon was later charged criminally for this in Switzerland County, Ind.

• Traveling to meet with the Oldham County attorney without the permission or knowledge of his supervisors on work time to allegedly influence the prosecution of a commercial fisherman.

• Attempting to influence a fellow conservation officer to not get involved with the prosecution of a commercial fishing violation.

Steffen said Sharon signed off on the settlement agreement Nov. 9, prior to when his weeklong hearing was set to occur. The commission accepted the agreement during its meeting Monday.

Sharon has filed a personnel board appeal trying to get his job back, Steffen said.

Sharon said Tuesday he was dismissed from his position as conservation officer in September of this year, but he was told it was not in connection with these charges. “It had to be,” he said.

His attorney expects that a hearing on his appeal could come early next year or even in spring 2013.

“I may not have been liked for my enforcement style over the years, but I’ve always been honest,” Sharon said. He called the situation “a personal get-even thing that worked.”