A state game warden will keep his job, badge and gun, despite repeated poaching violations, which are felonies under state law. Critics of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) also allege the agency may have made a fraudulent workers’ comp claim on behalf of the warden.
In 2013, Game Warden Chris Fried was accidentally shot by a stray bullet while reportedly poaching on public land – an illegal act. Since then, Fried has admitted wrongdoing and expressed remorse, although internal documents revealed he committed three other poaching violations the very same year.
The TPWD only charged Fried with a Class C misdemeanor related to the 2013 incident, even though repeated poaching violations should have automatically resulted in felony charges and jail time if convicted, according to Chapter 61.002 of the Parks and Wildlife Code.
TPWD claims Fried hasn’t received preferential treatment, citing other illegal hunts that resulted in misdemeanor charges. Fried’s case is notably different in two regards—he is an officer of the law and a repeat offender.
The motive for authorities to inappropriately charge Fried with a misdemeanor is simple. Doing so would allow him to remain employed in law enforcement, according to an exception in Chapter 53 of the Occupations Code. The TPWD would also be enabled to file a workers’ comp claim on behalf of Fried.
Unsurprisingly, an internal investigation defended the legitimacy of the agency’s insurance claim, which is largely based off of Fried’s own statements. Notably, he admitted to being off-duty and illegally hunting, but conveniently “transitioned into law enforcement mode” after hearing nearby gunfire, and before being shot.
An external investigation conducted by the Texas Rangers tells a different story, saying Fried was “off-duty hunting” when he was shot. This distinction is significant since state law exempts workers’ comp claims if they “arose out of voluntary participation in an off-duty recreational, social, or athletic activity that did not constitute part of the employee’s work-related duties.”
If Fried was off-duty while shot, the workers’ comp claim should have been denied. Furthermore, if the claim was knowingly filed inappropriately by the TPWD, then the agency made a fraudulent insurance claim.
The agency had another reason to back the warden’s version of the story. If Fried gave a “false or misleading statement” or misrepresented or concealed a “material fact” to law enforcement, he could face another state jail felony charge, according to Chapter 418 of the Labor Code.
The TPWD has since attempted to block the release of internal communication around the time of the incident, raising further suspicion of wrongdoing.
Recently, the Attorney General’s office ordered the release of more than one hundred pages of documents, including Wildlife Department emails. Among them was an email sent by a game warden major in northeast Texas the night of the 2013 shooting. It reads: “Early indications are that Chris was hunting when he was shot by another hunter and was not on duty at the time of the accident.”
A few days later, the story changed. The same game warden sent another email to two TPWD officials: “Based on what we know Chris’s incident happened while he was working so we need to start on the paperwork [for special benefits]…for being injured in the line of duty.”
The undisputed facts are, that despite Fried repeatedly breaking the law, he failed to face felony charges and risk losing his job. In doing so, the state has chosen to serve its own interests, not that of its citizens. But circumstantial evidence, internal TPWD communication, and an independent investigation also suggest the agency may have participated in insurance fraud to avoid further scrutiny surrounding the incident.
It’s shameful enough that a peace officer violated his oath of office by breaking the very laws he’s sworn to enforce. Even more troubling, is the allegation that an agency charged with serving the public may have also aided in a cover-up to “protect its own.”