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.