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PA Game Commission head resigns after business relationships revealed

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(The Center Square) — The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a new leader after its top official resigned due to moonlighting as a wellness coach — and engaging in a “business relationship” with several commission workers.

Bryan Burhans, PGC executive director, stepped down on Monday after the Board of Game Commissioners raised concerns unrelated to his leadership capabilities.

“The board became aware of circumstances beyond job performance that caused us to raise questions about whether a change in leadership would be appropriate,” Commissioner Scott Foradora said in a press release. “It recently came to light (that) Bryan had a business relationship with several Game Commission employees and received income through that relationship.”

Foradora, who is also the board president, noted that they did not accuse Burhans of any ethical violations, but only questioned the “appropriateness of those business relationships.”

Replacing Burhans is Pennsylvania native Stephen Smith, the commission’s deputy executive director since February. Smith has been with the PGC since 2008 and said he would call for an independent third-party review of the commission’s supplement employment policies.

PGC Spokesman Travis Lau clarified that Burhans was a wellness coach through Optavia, a “health and wellness community” that pairs a diet program with coaches.

“Your Coach will guide you through the Habits of Health Transformational System and help you develop healthy new habits and make healthy choices that can lead to lifelong transformation,” its website noted. “Your Coach guides and helps you celebrate the little victories that add up to the big ones.”

In March, Burhans was criticized during a House committee hearing for a personal consulting business. His website Rep. David Maloney, R-Berks, argued, showed a conflict with his personal business and his responsibilities as the PGC’s leader. “There’s no business right now,” Burhans said, and denied doing consulting work on PGC time.

Burhans has received media attention for losing 110 pounds in recent years; he noted the importance of healthy eating habits and maintaining a healthy lifestyle in an interview with the Erie Times-News.

Beyond Burhans’ consulting business, legislators have been critical of the PGC’s lobbying activities. In February, they learned that the PGC hired a $10,000 per-month lobbyist — the only state agency to do so since 2007.

The resignation of Burhans won’t satisfy legislators, either.

“I have been aware and as evidenced publicly in a couple recent hearings, there are some issues with the Game Commission’s management,” said Sen. Cris Dush, R-Brookville. “Without knowing the whole story, I am not able to comment directly, but I don’t anticipate this being the end of the discussion.”

Other agencies may serve as a model for the PGC, Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-Jacobus, argued.

“This move comes as no surprise as we continue to see a significant contrast by how our two key sportsmen agencies are run: The Fish and Boat Commission, which is responsible, respectful, and reactive to the anglers and boaters they support; and the Game Commission, which has spent hunting fees in ways that are unfathomable, like hiring outside lobbyists,” she said. “I hope this move is the start of many overdue reforms at the Game Commission to uphold and build upon our proud hunting traditions across our state.”

PGC Spokesman Travis Lau noted it was “undetermined” whether the employees in a business relationship with Burhans would be subject to disciplinary action.

“Because we are going to have a third party review of our supplemental employment policies, I’m not sure what the result will be,” he said.

The PGC’s press release announcing Burhans resignation was amiable.

“Not every hunter will agree on every issue or every change that affects them, but with Bryan, and the decisions he had a hand in, you always knew his heart was in the right place,” Board President Foradora said.

Burhans left on a note of gratitude.

“Every wildlife agency director has a lifespan, with the national average about three years of service,” he said. “My seven-year tenure is longer than many. I learned from so many great leaders that you must recognize when it’s time to go. Now is my time.”