Delaware’s government ethics agency has determined that the state agriculture secretary and one of his top deputies violated state law by entering into no-bid agreements with Department of Agriculture employees to care for farm animals seized by animal welfare officials.
The Public Integrity Commission ruled Monday that Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse improperly agreed to pay one of his employees more than $90,000 as part of a no-bid agreement to take care of a flock of poultry after almost 500 birds were seized in May.
The commission said the arrangement violated a law that prohibits any state employee from assisting a private enterprise in any matter involving that employee’s state agency. The commission said Scuse also violated a law requiring state employees to conduct themselves in a way that does not raise suspicion that they are violating the public trust or engaging in conduct that reflects unfavorably on state government.
The commission also found that Jimmy Kroon, who oversees the Agriculture Department’s daily operations as its administrator for management, violated state law by entering into an agreement with another agency employee for more than $10,000 to take care of about 50 pigs that had been seized in February.
Several other allegations against Scuse, including that he improperly entered into an animal care agreement worth about $31,000 with the spouse of a third department employee, were dismissed by the commission. The commission concluded that Scuse’s relationship with the spouse was "too attenuated" to sustain that allegation.
The commission did note that it sent emails to two agriculture department employees on May 22 warning them against engaging in conduct that had been alleged in an anonymous phone call to the PIC about the animal service contracts. The two employees replied with identical responses that same day, which the commission suggested was an indication of "collaboration."
It is unclear whether the Agriculture Department employees who accepted the payments are currently subject to commission proceedings.
Scuse and Kroon did not respond to emails from The Associated Press. Through a spokeswoman, Scuse issued a statement saying animal seizures have increased in recent years, but that there is a shortage of facilities that can properly care for large numbers of seized farm animals, which must be quarantined. Scuse said he was required to exercise his emergency authority because of "several unprecedent cases" earlier this year.
"We have witnessed a decrease in rescues that can assist with large-scale seizures involving farm animals, which created a need to contract with some of our staff who met the requirements for caring for these animals," the statement reads.
Scuse and Kroon are not likely to face any punishment for their actions beyond the public release of the commission’s reports. Many details, including employee names, dates, check numbers, and details of purchase orders and other documents, are redacted in the commission papers.
State expenditure records, however, show two payments totaling more than $90,000 were made in June to an agriculture department employee for "animal services." State payroll records show that, as of February, the employee was being paid an annual salary of about $33,000.
Scuse testified at a commission hearing last month that he did not know how much his employee was being paid to take care of the seized poultry for 30 days, but he acknowledged that it was likely more than twice her annual salary.
"I know that we paid them a lot of money," he is quoted as saying.
Commission records also indicate that Scuse had been advised by the deputy attorney general assigned to the agriculture department that, in order to avoid any issues with the Public Integrity Commission, he should not pay his employees for their contractual work.
"Despite receiving this advice from his DAG, Mr. Scuse decided to pay the employees anyway," the commission noted.
According to commission documents, Scuse maintained that he has the authority under his emergency powers to waive provisions of the state Code of Conduct. Commission officials said they were not swayed by his suggestion that an emergency waiver of procurement rules also allowed the Delaware Department of Agriculture, or DDA, to waive rules of employee conduct.
"Following Mr. Scuse’s logic, the statute empowered DDA to cast aside ALL provision of the Delaware Code," the commission said.