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Meadows, committee prepare for local ‘Bruingate’ hearings

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Government oversight body demands documents relating to two-state bear poaching sting.

The hearings will deal with testimony and evidence presented by WNC residents who have lodged formal federal complaints concerning conduct and tactics used by law enforcement officers during the now-discredited “Operation Something Bruin,” a bear-poaching sting operation that took place across southwestern North Carolina and northeast Georgia in February of 2013.

Meadows chairs the oversight committee’s Subcommittee on Governmental Operations, which is made up of eight Republican and seven Democratic members. His communications director, Alyssa Farah, told the Tribune it has not yet been determined which subcommittee members will accompany Meadows to Waynesville but added that announcement will be made “within the next few days.”

Meanwhile, Meadows’ office has sent letters to three Georgia wildlife officials and one from North Carolina, demanding documents pertaining to North Carolina officers’ operating outside their jurisdiction, with the assistance of Georgia officers, and the illegal transporting of at least one bear carcass across state lines for alleged evidence-planting purposes. (Operation Something Bruin was hailed at the time as a comprehensive, cooperative and highly successful anti-poaching sweep carried out by state and federal agents in North Carolina and their counterparts in Georgia.)

Letters were sent to Cindy Dohner, Atlanta-based Director of District 4 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Tony Tooke, a Georgia ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, and Mark Williams, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of National Resources. Also included was ; Gordon S. Myers, Executive Director of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

The letters are virtually identical and are signed by Rep. Jason Chavetz of Utah, the overall committee chairman; Meadows; and Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Interior. Each letter states, “Recent media reports suggest that the agencies used questionable tactics to charge hunters with violating anti-poaching laws throughout the operation.”

Each letter recipient is told to provide the committee with “all documents and communications relating to ‘Operation Something Bruin’ from January 20, 2009 [the date that planning for the sting began] until the present.” Recipients are also told to furnish documents and communications dealing with how the operation was funded, lists of all charges and convictions arising from it, and “all documents and communications relating to any interagency law enforcement agreement relating to Operation Something Bruin.” The subcommittee demanded that the specified information be furnished no later than 5 p.m. on Wednesday, June 3.

The letters then reference a Dec. 8, 2014, public hearing that was held at the Stecoah Cultural Center in Graham County.

At that hearing, North Carolina state lawmakers heard personal testimony or read sworn affidavits from hunters and guides arerested in the sting operation, as well as their families. The narratives painted a picture of across-the-board “gestapo tactics” used by the raiding officers; of disregard for police procedure and the rule of law, of warrantless searches, of houses ransacked and family heirlooms confiscated, of frightened children, separated from their parents, hiding under beds.

But even more damaging testimony related that, as case after case came up for trial, evidence indicated most defendants were either innocent of the charges brought against them to begin with, or that they had been lured by undercover agents into assisting in illegal acts that were actually carried out by the agents themselves. The use of such tactics is called entrapment, and is itself a violation of the law.

The packed Stecoah auditorium listened on that winter morning as committee counsel Barbara Riley read out the list of activities officers are forbidden under entrapment law to engage in: they may not “resort to trickery, fraud or persuasion” to make an arrest, nor “exploit a friendship” cultivated for the purpose of making an arrest based on those tactics. They may not take advantage of a suspect’s youth and inexperience, nor take advantage of a suspect’s financial difficulties in order to entice him to perform an illegal act. Each and all of these restrictions, defendants contended, was broken by officers during the raids.

Waynesville Atty. Russell McLean, who represented several of the defendants, told the state lawmakers at the time that the Operation Something Bruin agencies had not obtained assent from the state legislature for carrying out the sting, and had violated the provisions of NCGS 113-307.1 with regard to “the trapping, hunting, or transportation of any game animals, game or nongame birds, or fish by any person, including any agency, department, or instrumentality of the United States or agents thereof, on the lands in North Carolina.” “These agents broke the law they were sworn to uphold.” McLean said.

“I’ve been [practicing law] for 38 years and I have never seen this level of misconduct,” he added.

Ed. Note: Investigative journalist Roger McCredie has followed the “Operation Something Bruin” story since January of 2014.

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