Feds: Investigation in Wyoming trapper will remain private

2013-12-22T12:00:00Z Feds: Investigation in Wyoming trapper will remain privateBy LEAH TODD Casper Star Tribune The Billings Gazette
December 22, 2013 12:00 pm  • 

Results from an ongoing investigation into a Wyoming wildlife trapper accused of mistreating animals will not be made public upon the investigation's completion, a spokeswoman for the investigating agency said.

But public records attorneys disagree with the agency's reasons for keeping the investigation private, saying the public has a right to know how the agency responded when a federal employee posted photos of dogs attacking live, trapped coyotes to a personal Facebook page last year.

The trapper, Jamie Olson, is still employed by Casper-based Wyoming Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, according to APHIS spokeswoman Carol Bannerman. Wildlife Services works with commercial operators and state and local governments to protect livestock from predation by wolves, coyotes, mountain lions and other wild carnivores. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Wildlife Services is responsible for killing more than one million animals across the country each year.

The public reacted angrily when Olson posted photos of hunting dogs attacking a live coyote trapped in a leg snare more than a year ago. An online petition saying Olson's actions were inhumane and calling on the USDA to fire him reached 75,000 signatures, and several media organizations pressed Wildlife Services for information. APHIS responded by launching an internal investigation and tightening its rules about hunting with dogs, but has said little about whether Olson's actions were tolerable or whether any discipline ensued.

Bannerman said the results of APHIS's investigation cannot be revealed because of unspecified provisions in the Civil Service Reform Act, a law that requires federal agencies to inform employees of their rights and the evidence against them while being investigated or disciplined.

"When misconduct has been reported regarding a Federal employee, the Agency takes the complaint seriously and investigates all allegations," Bannerman wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. "The reports of an investigation are given only to agency official(s) with the authority to act on them and others with a need to know."

The agency's argument is weak, according to Jeff Ruch, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and executive director at the national nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

"There's nothing in the Civil Service Reform Act that prevents the release of information," Ruch said. The agency could withhold the report during its draft stages, he said, but upon completion the only argument APHIS could make for keeping it private would be to protect Olson's privacy.

That doesn't mean the entire report should be private, Ruch said.

There are other ways to protect a person's privacy, such as erasing individual names from the report, he said.

Wyoming public records attorney Bruce Moats echoed Ruch's argument, saying the Civil Service Reform Act does not apply to Olson's situation.

More relevant to Olson's case would be the Freedom of Information Act, Moats said, where a court would decide whether to make information public by weighing the privacy rights of the individual in question with the public's right to know what's going on.

"There is obviously a public interest that courts have recognized here," Moats said. "There is a public interest in knowing how the agency conducts itself and conducts its work."

When an individual's name and alleged misconduct are already publicly known, there is little privacy left to protect, Ruch said.

"In this case it's on the Web," he said. "That makes a strong case for publishing the entire report."

Wildlife Services has said it does not tolerate inhumane treatment of animals. According to an agency manual, hunting dogs must be controllable at all times and employees must demonstrate "exceptionally high levels of respect for people, property and wildlife."

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