The Department of Natural Resources, a state senator and an assistant attorney general have all told Anne Arundel County that its new Venison Food Relief program violates state law.
County Executive Steuart Pittman has no plans to shut it down.
Backed by a legal opinion from county attorneys, Pittman said he plans to continue the program that rewards hunters for donating venison to the Anne Arundel County Food Bank. Hunters can earn $50 for every legally harvested deer delivered to a participating county butcher. Pittman funded it with $128,000 in CARES Act dollars on Nov. 1.
The DNR and others opposed to the program say it is likely a violation of the code since the county is giving hunters $50 for each deer. They say this constitutes an “exchange,” a prohibited act under Natural Resources Article Section 10-404(e).
The county Office of Law rejected this, noting that the $50 is a reimbursement for their time and efforts in hunting the deer. County Attorney Greg Swain wrote in an opinion the hunters are not paid for the whole or proportional value of the donated deer. Similarly, the participating butchers are being paid by the county to process the animals, but they do not keep any deer parts. It all goes to the food bank, Swain wrote.
In a letter dated Nov. 12, Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio wrote to Pittman expressing “immense concern” about the program and backing from the Office of the Attorney General regarding the code violation. The letter does not order Pittman to cease the program and expresses hope to “address legal deficiencies.”
“While we believe the County had good intentions, it is disappointing that the Department was not asked to consult or provide feedback on the Venison Food Relief Act prior to its public commencement,” she wrote. “It is also unfortunate that your Venison Food Relief Program now puts both Maryland hunters and deer processors in a precarious legal position if they participate in the county program.”
Pittman responded the same day.
“That is not correct, as the hunter is donating the game to the Food Bank, which is the only way to qualify under the program. The processor is involved only to process the meat and does not take ownership of any portion of a processed deer," Pittman wrote. "There is no prohibition against the donation of game mammals and state law likewise encourages donations of venison and grants a state income tax credit under §10–746 of the Tax- General Article of the State Code.”
He said he believes the county is complying with the letter and spirit of the law.
State Sen. Jack Bailey, R-Calvert and St Mary’s counties, also had concerns about the program he laid out in a Nov. 6 letter to Pittman. Bailey is the chair of the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus and is a retired DNR officer. He wrote the program could create a precedent for counties to offer “cash prizes” for other species, such as Canada geese, which Bailey said are also considered a nuisance species.
He also wrote that the county paying $50 to hunters for each legally harvested deer could be considered a “bounty” — another violation of the code. Bailey sought advice from Assistant Attorney General David Stamper, who responded that he also thought the program, while a good intention, violated state code.
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In an interview with The Capital Wednesday, Pittman said he has no intention of cutting the program short. It’s already slated to run out at the end of the year when all the CARES Act funding must be used up or returned to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Pittman said his staff met with DNR Assistant Secretary Phil Hager, who previously worked in the county Office of Planning and Zoning. Pittman was not in the meeting but said his staff made it clear they had no intention to stop the program and that the DNR acknowledged that there is a difference of legal opinion.
DNR spokesperson Gregg Bortz said Wednesday evening that the department maintains its position stated in the letter and still believes the program is a code violation.
Pittman also wrote to Gov. Larry Hogan, asking him to have Haddaway-Riccio “refrain from further interference in the program.” He offered to work with the governor on legislative solutions to resolve “any perceived legal obstacles to expansion of this worthy program in the future.”
In the letter, he said he never expected government interference of this kind in a program that is “so clearly a humanitarian relief effort.”
Wednesday evening, the governor’s spokesperson Mike Ricci said: “It is highly inappropriate for the county executive to suggest that one of the highest-ranking women in state government should ‘refrain’ from doing her job. Secretary Haddaway-Riccio raised legitimate concerns, and the matter is now being handled by lawyers from the administration and the General Assembly.”
Pittman said he was not aware of the administration’s involvement or the General Assembly’s lawyers and was not suggesting Haddaway-Riccio not do her job.