State DNR official must repay $7,200

The chief of state parks in Illinois must repay $7,200 of travel reimbursement he wasn’t entitled to after inquiries by The Associated Press, the latest in a series of missteps at the Department of Natural Resources since February.

Ronald House, the department’s director of the office of land management, was reimbursed nearly 80 times for commuting to or from work when state travel rules forbid such reimbursement, according to an AP review of state records.

It’s another blemish for Natural Resources officials, who initially defended the reimbursements as proper, after a series of recent public relations troubles: a deputy director who attended fishing tournaments while on sick leave and two mining regulators who accepted campaign contributions from a coal-mine operator.

Chris Young, spokesman for IDNR Director Mark Miller, initially said the director would not require House, who makes $75,000 annually, to repay the money because it was not his error. But Miller changed his mind this week and asked for reimbursement, ten days after the agency acknowledged the error.

MORE: State employee travel rules

Young didn’t know if there are other administrators who might be in the same situation as House, whose main responsibility since joining IDNR in September 2010 is overseeing state parks.

“The IDNR believed it was properly interpreting the travel rules … ” Young said in a prepared statement. “Going forward, IDNR will provide training for all personnel who review travel requests, update its employee handbook and strengthen overall travel policies within the agency.”

House lives in Benton, in southern Illinois, and his officially designated headquarters is 165 miles away in Springfield. Rules set by the governor’s travel control board specify that on any trip in which a traveler goes to or through headquarters, that person must subtract any commuting mileage.

An AP review of travel records showed 78 instances in which House traveled between Benton and Springfield with a side trip in between — typically Sparta, home of IDNR’s World Shooting and Recreational Complex. On those trips, only the side mileage to Sparta, about 20 miles, could be reimbursed, but House received the full 185 miles.

House served as interim director of the Sparta shooting complex from September 2011 to June 2013, Young said.

In total, House was paid $8,700 for 15,700 miles, when he was only eligible for $1,500 for 2,800 miles, according to the AP review.

“All I can tell you is that the people in DNR tell me what to do and what not to do, and ever since I have been there, that has been the policy, that’s what’s been approved, that’s what they have told me to do,” House said.

Grant Klinzman, a spokesman for Gov. Pat Quinn, indicated the governor supports Miller, saying Miller “took immediate and appropriate action” on “recent issues.” But Klinzman did not say whether that included the mileage flap.

The AP also questioned two instances in which House was reimbursed for round trips — about $187 apiece — between Benton and Springfield, with no stop-offs, in September 2012 and again in September 2013. Young said House was eligible for mileage payments because Miller asked him to attend conferences on Saturdays.

Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat and chairman of the House State Government Administration Committee, said he heard about the mileage reimbursement independent of the AP’s review and told Miller if House kept the money, the agency would have to report it as extra income for tax purposes. Franks said Miller was forthcoming about the error.

“He didn’t hide it, he didn’t weasel-word it. He just said, ‘Jack, I screwed up. I missed it,’” Franks said.

Other problems the agency has encountered in recent weeks were incidents involving high-level administrators at the Office of Mines and Minerals. One director, Travis Loyd, said he was forced to resign in February after it was revealed that he attended several professional fishing tournaments during some of the 44 days of sick leave he took last summer for a chronic illness.

Also in February, two mine-safety regulators, including the acting director, Michael Woods, were discovered to have accepted contributions from a coal-mining company for separate political funds they operate. One went on unpaid leave during an investigation, and Woods resigned.

Quinn and Sen. Mike Frerichs, a Democrat running for state treasurer, each donated to charity the money they’d received from Woods’ committee.

JOHN O’CONNOR, AP Political Writer

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