JEFFERSON CITY • The former head of the Missouri Department of Conservation was paid a total of $120,000 over a 10-month span as part of a separation agreement that is being criticized by the state auditor.
In a report issued Thursday, Auditor Nicole Galloway slammed the department for an agreement that not only paid Robert Ziehmer, but allowed him to keep his health insurance and rack up pension credits even though he had taken a new job in the private sector.
“Missouri is well-known across the nation for premier outdoor opportunities, making the work of the Department of Conservation an important part of our economy,” Galloway said. “It’s crucial that officials ensure every dollar spent has value for Missouri taxpayers by supporting their mission.”
The previously secret agreement between Ziehmer and the agency was first reported by the Post-Dispatch in March 2017, more than seven months after he’d left the agency to work for a foundation connected to outdoor retailing giant Bass Pro Shops.
The audit said the separation agreement was a way for the agency to pay Ziehmer’s compensatory time earned for working more than a 40-hour workweek.
That is a different explanation than what the agency told the newspaper last year when officials suggested that Ziehmer might take legal action when they pushed him out of the top job after six years at the helm.
“To ensure an amicable parting, the parties wish to compromise, resolve and settle, finally and forever, any claims and causes of action that were or could have been asserted by the employee against MDC,” the separation agreement reads.
In the agreement, both sides said the pact should not be construed as an admission of liability or wrongdoing.
“MDC expressly denies any such liability, wrongdoing or responsibility,” the agreement says.
Galloway said no other state agency pays its top staff for comp time.
“Granting compensatory time to top level supervisory and managerial staff, such as deputy directors and division chiefs, appears unnecessary and costly,” the audit noted. “This level of compensation appears excessive for an ‘at-will’ director position and is not in the best interest of the MDC or taxpayers.”
The audit notes that the commission that oversees the agency launched a review of its compensation and benefits a month after the Post-Dispatch reported the payouts to Ziehmer, which had drawn the ire of state lawmakers.
As part of that, the department altered its system for comp time and will now pay it out on a yearly basis, rather than letting it accumulate for a lump sum to be paid out when an employee leaves the agency. The new system went into effect July 1.
But the commission did not back off its decision to give Ziehmer the buyout.
“The commission believes that the separation and release agreement was appropriate, and the terms and conditions were in the department’s best interest,” the agency said in a note provided to the auditor.
The agreement, she said, was not supported by documented justification of need or purpose and deviated from department policy and standard practices for state employee terminations
Unlike other state agencies that rely on general tax dollars, the Department of Conservation is funded by a special tax approved by voters in 1976. The one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax collected by the state is dedicated to conservation efforts.
The department is not controlled directly by the governor. Rather, the governor appoints four commissioners to six-year terms. The board that approved Ziehmer’s separation agreement was appointed by former Gov. Jay Nixon.
Ziehmer was the eighth director of the conservation agency since its founding in 1937. He was paid $140,000 annually to oversee a staff of 1,450 full-time and 500 hourly employees.
Soon after Ziehmer’s departure, the Conservation Commission selected former Department of Natural Resources Director Sara Parker Pauley to replace him. Pauley is the first female director of the Department of Conservation.
The audit also rapped the agency for continuing to use state airplanes to shuttle commission members and other top aides to meetings, saying it is a waste of money.
In June 2017, for example, the agency flew a commissioner one-way from Sikeston to Chesterfield to attend a commission meeting in St. Charles.
“We estimate transportation by car would have cost approximately $50 and transportation by aircraft cost approximately $2,400, a difference of about $2,350,” the audit noted.
In July 2015, a deputy director was flown round-trip from Jefferson City to Mountain View to attend a commission meeting held in Van Buren, wasting an estimated $700.
In a statement, the department disagreed that using the planes was not cost-effective.
“Conservation commissioners serve without compensation by providing thousands of hours of volunteer time attending meetings and representing all areas in the state. In addition to their volunteer duties as commissioners, these dedicated individuals are fully engaged in their own professions. The efficiency of travel by plane has enabled these commissioners to participate in Conservation business meetings, department events, and public meetings throughout the state,” officials said.