Taxpayers pay for Conservation Director's federal fines

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Iowa (KCRG) -- Missing pecans led to an I9 investigation that has found Washington County's top conservation officer has violated the laws he is charged with enforcing and has cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in fines. It all started with a workplace safety violation.

As county conservation director, Steve Anderson is responsible for overseeing law enforcement on county owned land. Anderson has been in that role since 1984.

After Anderson was cited late last year for hunting deer without a license, I9 also found several federal safety violations, including one for county workers picking pecans. But county records showed no program for picking pecans which started us on a search to find out what happened to the pecans public workers have been picking.

"He'd try to get as many (pecans) as he could in a week's time," said former Washington County conservation officer, Mark Even. "Could be half a day just picking pecans. Sometimes a full day."

Mark Even says he was one of several workers who helped harvest pecans from trees on county land. Even says after the pecans were picked Anderson would put them in his truck and take them home.

Investigators from the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2017 showed employees climbed into a bucket attached to a tractor without a harness in order to harvest the nuts.

"A camper came to him and says, 'Isn't that an OSHA violation?' And (Anderson) laughed and said 'only if they catch me doing it.'"

Even complained to OSHA and that eventually led to fines totaling $5,250 for "serious" safety violations. I9 was able to ask Anderson about the pecans at a Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this week.

"We made a mistake out there and we addressed it and we have moved forward and we have a great safety record and we're moving forward and we're doing well here," said Anderson.

Emails obtained by I9 from an open records request show Anderson made light of the violations and joked about buying beer and drinking on the job. In a separate instance, when regulators required the county to post paperwork on his building's door, Anderson joked there was so much of it, "I hope the building does not end up dangerously dark. LOL."

Anderson denied ever sending them emails when I9 asked him about them.

"Never happened," said Anderson.

Washington County Auditor Dan Widmer interrupted and cut our interview with Anderson short but he did not explain why.

Anderson has been in trouble with the law before. The most recent case was last year for hunting with an expired license, taking seven deer with it. That led to a $100 fine and no other charges which the Iowa DNR told us was up to "officer discretion".

"Anybody else would have been charged in my opinion for the full seven, and their guns taken away," said Even.

It was not the first time Anderson has been in trouble with the law for similar crimes. In 2013, Anderson was issued two other citations for illegal hunting.

Washington County Supervisor Stan Stoops is also a member of the county conservation board, which oversees Anderson. Stoops voted to give Anderson a raise even after his DNR citations and OSHA fines. In an email earlier this year, Stoops called those offenses "personal" and said Anderson has done a "superior job". I9 tried asking Stoops to explain that on camera but he declined, choosing instead to yell "Get that camera! You shut that camera off!".

Even sent a letter to Stoops and the county conservation board in 2017 warning of what he called "Andersons lack of concern for employee safety." Even's list of examples of issues included the same violations that prompted fines from OSHA the next year. Even says however nothing changed which was one reason he chose to resign.

"I could not see myself working for a department that was willing to ignore all of these problems," said Even.

As for the pecans, earlier this year, Anderson told I9 he "donated" the nuts but never told us where. When we asked him face-to-face about the nuts this week he had a different story.

"We actually took some home," said Anderson.

Anderson insists all those who have used county property to pick pecans with him volunteered to do so and that they did it on their own time. Washington County ended up settling its OSHA fines for just over $2,600.

We should note Anderson's raise was tied in with all other conservation employees who work for him but those emails joking about safety violations should not come as a surprise to some elected officials, like Stoops, as Anderson had also sent them copies.