Incoming South Dakota game head cleared of Alaska ethics complaint

PIERRE, S.D. — The incoming secretary of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks has been cleared of ethics allegations in Alaska, although critics say it was due to a technicality.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard last week announced that South Dakota native Kelly Hepler will replace Jeff Vonk, who is retiring in January after serving as Game and Fish secretary since 2007.

Hepler, who has worked with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game since 1979, was among several public officials in that state accused in August of not reporting gifts from a lobbying organization known as the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Argus Leader newspaper reported.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission determined last month that Hepler did nothing wrong because his job title did not fall under a category that requires disclosure.

Hepler’s title is listed in state directories as “assistant commissioner,” and the resume that he used to apply for the South Dakota job also lists him as “assistant commissioner.” The Public Offices Commission, however, determined that the title was not official and that Hepler was officially known as a special project coordinator, a title not required to report gifts from lobbyists.

“It’s either black or white — it’s not a technicality,” Hepler told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Hepler said “assistant commissioner” was one of several “working titles” he has held but that “special project coordinator” is his official state title.

Tony Venhuizen, Daugaard’s chief of staff, said the governor’s office was aware of the complaint made against Hepler when it approached him about the job.

“He was upfront about this whole matter,” Venhuizen said.

Hepler said he mentioned the allegations to South Dakota officials because “I believe in being honest with people and forthright.”

Hepler is expected to start his duties in South Dakota in March.

“I’m looking forward to my time as secretary,” he said.

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