By Warren Fiske
© June 5, 2008
A judge tossed out felony embezzlement charges Thursday against the former director of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who had been accused of misusing state funds to go on a 2004 African safari.
William L. Woodfin Jr. is the last of three former top game officials to be exonerated this spring after being indicted last year on charges of using state credit cards to buy supplies for the excursion.
Two hours into a scheduled two-day trial, Richmond Circuit Judge Richard D. Taylor Jr. ruled that prosecutors had not presented evidence that Woodfin "knowingly" violated laws when he used a state credit card to pay for about $500 in clothes and shoes before the safari and $395 in personal calls home during the trip.
Although the money was paid back to the state, the use of the government credit card for the purchases resulted in two embezzlement indictments against Woodfin, each carrying a maximum 10-year prison sentence and $100,000 fine.
Woodfin, 60, declined to comment after the dismissal. His lawyer, Joseph Owen III, said the case should have never been pressed by Attorney General Bob McDonnell's office.
"From the first time I looked at this, I could not figure out why anyone would view this as a criminal action," Owen said. "Mr. Woodfin dedicated 30 years of his life to public service, and he was paid back with indictments. It's tragic."
Owen said Woodfin will take little solace in his exoneration. "He's been acquitted, but at the very least he's had two or three years of his life taken from him in worrying about this crap," Owen said. "It's a very sad footnote to a very distinguished public career."
Woodfin went on the safari with his two top game wardens - Terry C. Bradbery and Michael G. Caison - and Dan Hoffler, a Virginia Beach developer who in 2004 was chairman of the citizen board that oversaw the outdoor agency. A 2005 state audit said $11,532 in supplies for the trip had been charged to state credit cards. Hoffler eventually reimbursed the state for all supplies and trip costs.
Woodfin, Bradbery and Caison have since resigned from the agency, and Hoffler stepped down as chairman.
In April, Richmond Circuit Judge Beverly Snukals dismissed two embezzlement counts against Caison in midtrial, saying the state had not proved that crimes had been committed.
Last month, the state dropped its case against Bradbery.
Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell, defended pressing the cases.
"It is crucial to public trust in government that allegations of impropriety and misuse of public funds be heard," he said in a written statement. "Government officials must be held accountable for improperly spending citizens' tax dollars, and there must be a public process to present the relevant evidence. That process was concluded today."
McDonnell has been criticized for bringing a slow resolution to the cases against the game officials. State police were forwarded the audit and began their own investigation in July 2005. McDonnell, later that year, accepted $25,000 in campaign contributions from Hoffler and his company.
McDonnell inherited the cases when he became attorney general in January 2006. Because of his relationship with Hoffler, he recused himself and turned the files over to his chief deputy, William Mims. A grand jury handed up indictments last September against Woodfin, Bradbery and Caison.
The case against Woodfin was complicated by unclear regulations over use of state cards that existed in the game department in 2004 and confusion over whether the safari was technically a trip on state time or a vacation.
Hoffler came up with the safari idea, saying it would be an opportunity for the officials to learn about game conservation. David Paylor, a former deputy secretary of natural resources, testified he told the officials they would have to take the trip on personal time and no state money could be spent on it.
Paylor said he authorized the purchase of a satellite phone to be taken on the safari because Woodin, as wildlife director, was required to be in contact with his agency.
Records show Woodfin made $395 in calls to his home and $571 in calls to the office. Owen, the lawyer, said Woodfin made a number of calls home because his wife had a heart condition and he was worried about her.
Owen said Woodfin purchased khaki pants and boots with a state credit card not necessarily for the safari, but because they are part of a uniform he wore in Virginia for outdoor operations.
Several financial officers in the game department said the agency pays for the uniforms of game wardens. Woodfin's credit card purchases of clothing were authorized by department accountants. But there was conflicting testimony over whether the authorization meant that the purchases adhered to policies or that Woodfin simply produced receipts that matched his state credit card bill.
The financial officers also said there was no strict policy on the use of credit cards - only a requirement that purchases be consistent with the agency's "mission." Those rules have since been tightened.
Judge Taylor, in dismissing the charges, said the agency did not have "a set of procedures in place that served the taxpayers well."