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Oklahoma’s top conservationist steps down Early retirement allegedly due to ‘political retaliation’

STILLWATER, Okla. – Oklahoma’s top conservationist – a man with a sterling reputation for competency and leadership – will take an early retirement rather than accept a demotion and transfer after being tarred by an allegation of ineffectiveness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Oklahoma’s conservation community and elected officials say State Conservationist Darrel Dominick, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, has been targeted for political retaliation because they probed the federal agency regarding $500 million in conservation technical assistance funding that has not been distributed to the states.

A Natural Resources Conservation Service spokesman denied that Dominick has been the subject of a political vendetta and said all of the appropriated conservation money has been distributed for the purpose Congress intended.

But according to a letter from another NRCS spokesman, more than $20 million of the $500 million was diverted in a supplemental bill to the Defense Department as part of a government-wide “across-the-board” expropriation of 1 percent of discretionary budgets. The service so far has not accounted for the remaining $480 million, Oklahoma officials said.

Dominick is the third generation of his family to work for the USDA, a combined 91 years of service. He has a bachelor of science in agriculture and a master’s degree in public administration from the Oklahoma State University, and is a senior executive fellow of Harvard University. He has worked in seven states, including Maine and New York.

Dominick won nine performance awards since 2000 when he became the USDA’s State Conservationist for Oklahoma, working with farmers, ranchers, conservation commissions and organizations on protecting and preserving the state’s water, soil and wildlife resources.

Under Dominick’s leadership, the Oklahoma NRCS received four major USDA outreach awards for service to tribes and minorities.

“To have our legacy end like this is very hard for our family,” Dominick said in an e-mail to Indian Country Today.

Dominick’s forced “discontinued service retirement” will result in a large deduction in his annuity, but he and his wife decided to remain in Oklahoma to care for his elderly father and mother-in-law and where their eldest daughter attends graduate school and youngest is a high school senior.

“Mobility for the family is not possible,” Dominick said.

He declined to discuss further details of his decision because his situation remains sensitive until after his retirement, which is effective Sept. 15.

“I have asked no one to speak for me or take up for me. I will continue to not expect or ask for assistance. We are going to transition and trust in the Creator. My family has been sustained by lots of prayers, friends and support. The Choctaw Nation of Okla., my big family, has been supportive. We are blessed because of this support,” Dominick said.

Dominick was given the choice of reassignment or retirement in a letter dated Aug. 9, from USDA Undersecretary Mark E. Rey, who said Dominick had “failed … to facilitate a cohesive partner relationship with your state and to provide an example to NRCS employees as to how that partner relationship should be cultivated.”

Mike Thralls, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, said Rey’s allegation “is an absolute lie.”

Thralls’ response is typical of the firestorm of protest Rey’s actions have provoked among conservationists and state officials, who deluged USDA Secretary Mike Johanns with letters, asking for Dominick to remain the state conservationist.

“Darrel has not only worked with the conservation district and conservation commission, but also he was really good at tearing down institutional walls that divide agencies and he was exceptional with the tribes. He really broadened the base of folks working together,” Thralls said. Oklahoma has 38 federally recognized American Indian tribes.

Clay Pope, Cherokee, and executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, said Dominick was particularly valued in Indian country.

“Darrel is a native Oklahoman. State Conservationist was Darrel’s dream job and he did it from his heart. Darrel is the highest ranking Native American in NRCS and may be the highest ranking in the USDA and it’s something the tribes in Oklahoma are extremely concerned about, that one of their own has been a real example and role model for a lot of folks joining the government service from the American Indian community,” Pope said.

“A lot of times, the fact that you’re going in and you’re faced with leaving your cultural ties, well, Darrel has shown you can do it and still hold on to the things you hold dear and at the same time rise up the ranks of a federal agency and achieve the things you want to, and then to have him targeted this way really causes a lot of concern,” Pope said.

Thralls said Dominick is being blamed for something he didn’t do – probe the NRCS on the whereabouts of $500 million appropriated for conservation technical assistance that has not been distributed to the states for the past two years.

It was the Conservation Commission, not Dominick, that discovered the missing funds and pushed for answers, Thrall said.

The commission’s accountant reviewed a six-year report of NRCS funding and discovered the figures balanced for 2000 – ’04, then showed $265 million for 2005 had not been distributed to the states. In the 2006 fiscal year, the commission found a $182 million shortage as of Jan. 28, only four months into the fiscal year, Thrall said.

In response to his inquiry, Thrall got a letter dated April 27 from Dana York on behalf of NRCS Chief Bruce Knight.

“First, she told me my figures were wrong, but then she admitted NRCS withheld something like $251 million in ’05; then she says they withheld $245 million in ’06. Then she implied that the $251 million held in ’05 was just carried over to ’06 and they still had it and it didn’t go to any other area. I’ve asked for further clarification and as of yet haven’t received anything,” Thrall said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-3rd District, who praised Dominick for his effective leadership in the state’s conservation efforts, received the same non-response from NRCS to his own inquiry.

Later in the spring, Lucas introduced and passed an amendment to this year’s agricultural bill that cut funding the undersecretary funding for natural resources’ operating salary, personal salary, and travel budget.

“It was a pretty dramatic set of circumstances and clearly whether it’s directly related or indirectly related [to Dominick’s reassignment], there’s been a chain of events that’s gone off since then,” Lucas said in a recorded interview with Ron Hays, editor of the online Oklahoma Farm Report. Lucas promised to address the issue “face to face” when he returned to Washington, D.C., after Labor Day.

In her letter to Thrall, York said a Defense Appropriations/

Emergency Supplemental bill cut “$10 million in carryover funding from the Conservation Operations account” and “a government-wide 1 percent across-the-board cut to discretionary budget resources [that] resulted in a net decrease of $10,047,130, for a total of $20,047,130,” York said.

In a phone interview, NRCS Director of Legislative and Public Affairs Doug McKalip said he didn’t know if the conservation funding expropriated by the Defense bill was used for the war in Iraq.

McKalip said there were additional cuts in the conservation account, including around $120 million in 2006 for “Congressional earmarks,” and around $93 million in 2005 and 2006 for products and services to the NRCS charged by the Agriculture Department. He said he would get the “detailed numbers” on the balance of the funding from his staff.

In an earlier interview, McKalip said questioning the whereabouts of the $500 million “doesn’t make sense to me. The funding the agency gets each year is all distributed and it goes for the purpose Congress intends if for. Without knowing the details, yes, I think that, yes, it has been distributed.”