A top aide to Rep. Denny Rehberg insisted Thursday that he was innocent of elk poaching and blamed the charges on a political smear campaign — even as a newly released affidavit contradicted his story.
Rehberg state director Randy Vogel is due in a Madison County court next week on allegations of hunting violations that could land him in prison for up to six months.
The case has sparked a bitter war of words between Democrats and Republicans. Each side accuses the other of distorting what happened for political gain.
Sorting out the truth could be difficult: Vogel, a Republican, said he has since sold to an anonymous buyer the rifle authorities suspect was used to illegally shoot a young bull elk near Ennis last November.
Vogel was not notified of the charges until March 2 — a day after being named Rehberg’s state director. He is accused of harvesting a spike bull elk during a closed season, abandoning the carcass in the field, killing more than one elk without authorization and obstructing a peace officer.
In interviews with The Associated Press, Vogel acknowledged hunting for elk on the Bar-K Ranch on Nov. 18. But he said he harvested a female animal under a valid license.
He claimed members of his hunting party never saw any spike bull elk. He added that other hunters were shooting in the area at the same time and that he fully cooperated with investigators.
But an affidavit from game warden Ryan Gosse filed Thursday in state District Court in Madison County paints a different picture.
Gosse said there was no evidence of other hunters in the area, that Vogel’s guide admitted seeing a spike bull and that Vogel was “uncooperative at times and demeaning” when questioned by the warden.
“That’s a lie,” said Vogel, who served two decades as a Billings police officer before entering politics.
Vogel called the timing of the charges “suspicious” and pointed out that the deputy director for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Art Noonan, is a longtime political operative.
Noonan was executive director for the Montana Democratic Party when it was chaired by Dennis McDonald. McDonald is now seeking the party’s nomination to oppose Rehberg in November.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said there was no political pressure to pursue poaching a case against Vogel. As for the three-month gap between the alleged shooting and the citation, Aasheim said investigations take time.
“You have to interview people, get search warrants, all those sorts of things,” Aasheim said. “That’s very simply what we did.”
Vogel and others in the GOP point to an audio recording of McDonald talking about the investigation as proof of political chicanery.
McDonald spoke about the case the morning of March 3 at a Democratic event in Yellowstone County. The citations against Vogel were not filed with the court until later that day.
“He’s trying to get Rehberg through me,” said Vogel, who has taken a voluntary leave without pay from Rehberg’s staff.
McDonald said Thursday that he never discussed the case with wildlife officials and was merely repeating rumors that have circulated in the ranching community for weeks. Suggestions that he was given inside information were “absurd,” McDonald said.
“That’s just the Rehberg spin machine at work,” he said.
McDonald also has injected politics into the case, questioning claims by Rehberg’s office that the congressman was unaware of the poaching charges when he appointed Vogel in March.
Vogel was with four others on the day in question, including another Rehberg staffer, Mike Waite, and a Bar-K Ranch employee who served as their hunting guide.
After shooting a cow elk near the edge of the ranch, Vogel said he tracked the animal, gutted it, carted it out of the field and left.
However, earlier that morning, Vogel said the hunting party had come across a vehicle on nearby U.S. Forest Service land that they suspected belonged to other hunters. Just before he shot the cow elk, Vogel said he heard at least two shots fired.
That night, a warden came to Vogel’s motel room to ask about a dead spike elk found by workers on the Sun West Ranch, which is adjacent to Bar-K.
Vogel claims he cooperated with the warden and offered to return to the site the next day but then didn’t hear from state officials until Jan. 15. That’s when five wardens showed up at his Billings home with a search warrant authorizing them to seize his .270-caliber rifle.
“They said they had found a round in the elk, a .270,” he said. By then, Vogel had sold the weapon for $350 to an anonymous buyer at a Billings gun show held in mid-December, he said.
According to the affidavit, Vogel was the only member of his party carrying a .270 rifle.
Vogel said he was speaking out Thursday to set the record straight — and against the advice of his lawyer, Lance Lovell of Billings.
“I don’t believe in coincidences like that in politics,” Vogel said of being cited a day after he was named state director. “It just doesn’t happen.”