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State agency accused of misusing taxpayer dollars

The Missouri Department of Conservation is under fire for having what’s being called an “illegal relationship” with one of its non-profit entities.

It’s all part of a current lawsuit that has been going on since 2013.

Swallow Tail, LLC claims MDC is taking part in the land mitigation business that it’s supposed to be regulating–putting smaller private companies out of business.

A proposed bill that would ban MDC and the Conservation Commission from “engaging in prohibited conduct with a connected not-for-profit corporation” was presented at a Senate committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol Tuesday.

The non-profit accused of using taxpayer money to engage in land mitigation business is called the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation.

Land mitigation is when a company comes in and restores wetland areas or streams that may have been disturbed by construction projects.

Private companies come in and do that for a price, but a lawsuit and state Senator Brian Munzlinger claim the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation is using state resources to do those jobs, which also puts smaller mitigation banking companies out of business.

“Using state resources to be in competition with and put private business and industry out of business and I don’t believe, and I hope the members of the committee also don’t believe, that this is proper conduct of a state department with taxpayer dollars,” Munzlinger told a Senate ethics committee Tuesday.

Munzlinger is the sponsor of Senate Bill 337, which would ban the Conservation Commission and MDC from engaging in that so-called conduct with a connected non-profit like MCHF.

Munzlinger and an ongoing lawsuit claim that MDC has a serious conflict of interest with the foundation that benefits the foundation.

“We are now facing this competition from a state agency that no private sector business can compete with effectively,” said Missouri ag producer David Flick at Tuesday’s hearing. “As a private business, I pay tax to our government each year and those tax dollars and those purchases that I make on conservation products are used to out-compete myself and other businesses across the state.”

But numerous people testified in opposition of the bill, including Chris Vitello, the executive director of the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation.

“We do work with the department, we look to them for quality projects that we can then take the credits we’ve sold, and put those on the ground as good conservation projects,” Vitello told the committee.

Coincidentally, Vitello recently retired from a 27 year career with MDC.

Jennifer Frazier, general counsel for MDC, also testified in opposition, although she is willing to continue talks with Munzlinger about the substitution added to the bill.

“The department does not approve projects or regulate projects in any way,” Frazier said. “Our participation is solely to use the monies collected by the Heritage Foundation. We apply for grants for stream stewardship projects where by we fulfill our mission by protecting habitats, creating fisheries and improving natural resources.”

But some see a conflict of interest because some people who are involved with MCHF also currently work for or are former MDC employees.

“It just appears to me that there’s a conflict going on here to use taxpayer dollars to supplement a program to put private industry out of business,” Munzlinger said. “That’s the reason I filed the bill.”

The lawsuit against MDC is moving forward. In the last month, numerous MDC employees have received a notice to testify, including the director of MDC, Bob Ziehmer.

As of Tuesday night, there was no set date of when SB 337 would be put to a vote.

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