Fish and Game chief’s free cougar hunt may have violated rule

SACRAMENTO — The president of the California Fish and Game Commission violated state gift limits when he accepted a free guided cougar hunt in Idaho, ethics officials alleged Thursday.

But Daniel W. Richards belatedly reimbursed the Flying B Ranch for the $6,800 hunt after media outlets reported the Idaho outing, so the enforcement chief of the Fair Political Practices Commission issued a warning letter rather than seek fines.

State law bars officials from accepting gifts of more than $420 from certain sources. In the case of Fish and Game officials, those include hunting clubs, said Gary Winuk, the enforcement official at the ethics agency.

Officials can repay the gift within 30 days and still comply with the law, but Richards wrote a check for the Jan. 12 hunt more than 30 days later, on March 5, after a complaint was filed with the ethics commission, records show.

“Your actions violated the [state’s Political Reform] Act because you received a gift over the limit,” Winuk wrote to Richards. “However, because you did repay the donor relatively soon after receipt of the gift, although after the 30-day window for repayment …we have decided to close the case.”

Winuk’s letter noted that the violation could have resulted in a $5,000 fine.

Kathay Feng, president of California Common Cause, said the warning letter was not enough: “The FPPC should have issued a fine … if they want public officials to avoid future ethics violations.”

Forty state legislators recently called for Richards’ resignation. They said that although killing a mountain lion is legal in Idaho, he showed poor judgment by doing so, given that slaying cougars for sport is outlawed in California.

Richards, who posted an Internet photo of himself holding the dead cat, has maintained that he acted legally in killing the animal. He repaid the ranch’s owner “in an abundance of caution,” even though he believes the hunt was not covered by the gift limit rule, said his attorney, Stephen G. Larson.

“Mr. Richards is confident that no wrongdoing has occurred,” Larson wrote in an April 4 letter to the ethics commission.

The ranch is owned by Burlingame Industries, a Rialto company headed by Robert C. Burlingame. It provides roofing tiles and has an interest in Mountain Lakes Resort near Lytle Creek in California, records show.

The resort has regularly received permits from the Fish and Game Department for the importation of rainbow trout. The permit is issued by a staff member, agency officials said.