The conference in July of last year was jointly sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources, and two external groups, the Minnesota Conservation Officer Association and the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association.
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said the DNR wrongly spent almost $300,000 by covering a large portion of the conference cost.
The conference was meant to train conservation officers, but Nobles said the DNR could have accomplished that goal by spending less money. He says the department even covered expenses for social activities.
"It had a golf outing, it had various other kinds of family activities, and those are all fine for people to attend and participate it," he said. "It just shouldn't be paid for by taxpayer's money with taxpayer funds. We are very critical of the department for allowing public money to be used to support these other aspects of the conference."
DNR employees within the enforcement division helped plan the conference along with people at one of the conservation officers groups. Nobles said documents his agency reviewed show the conference produced a profit of nearly $77,000 for the officer groups.
"Their intent, this was not by accident, there intent was to use this conference to make money," Nobles said. "And that's what they achieved but they achieved that by an inappropriate use of public resources and through an inappropriate use of state resources to raise additional money from private sources."
Nobles said the officer groups also profited by charging conference volunteers registration fees.
He said DNR employees solicited donations from private businesses, many of which interact with the department. Nobles said none of that money went to the state.
"They used state time and state money, and we know that they made many of those representations in uniform and we think that is a direct conflict with the code of conduct for state employees," he said.
Nobles said some employees expressed discomfort at soliciting money from private organizations but felt their activities had the blessing of the commissioner's office. He says the department should have had better control over all of this activity.
Nobles said almost all of the people questioned fully cooperated with the investigation, except for three DNR employees who declined to speak, citing their rights under the Fifth Amendment.
DNR spokesperson Colleen Coyne said it was a difficult day at the DNR, but the department is acting to address the concerns. She said DNR employees feel strongly about the work they do on behalf of people who love the outdoors.
"Learning about these errors, the DNR has made has been a setback," she said. "But on the other hand there's a sense here too that the changes we're making now to make sure this doesn't happen again will help us become a better agency."
The DNR is conducting its own internal investigation.
Next, the audit report will go to the state attorney general's and county attorney's offices for review. It recommends to get back the profits that went the two officer groups.