BILLINGS - A top aide to Rep. Denny Rehberg on Thursday insisted he was innocent of elk poaching allegations and said they were politically motivated - even as a newly released affidavit directly contradicted his version of events.
Rehberg state director Randy Vogel is due in a Madison County court next week on alleged hunting violations that could land him in prison for up to six months if convicted.
The case has sparked a bitter war of words between Democrats and Republicans, with each side accusing the other of distorting what happened for political gain.
Sorting out the truth could be difficult: Vogel, a Republican, said he has since sold to an anonymous buyer the rifle that authorities suspect was used to illegally shoot a young bull elk near Ennis last November.
On March 2 - a day after being named Rehberg's state director - Vogel was accused of harvesting a spike bull elk during a closed season, abandoning the carcass in the field, killing more than one elk without authorization and obstructing a peace officer.
In interviews with the Associated Press, Vogel acknowledged hunting for elk Nov. 18 on the Bar-K Ranch, but said he harvested a female animal under a valid license.
He claimed members of his hunting party never saw any spike bull elk, that other hunters were shooting in the area at the same time and that he fully cooperated with investigators.
But an affidavit from game warden Ryan Gosse filed Thursday in state District Court in Madison County paints a far different picture.
Gosse said there was no evidence of other hunters in the area, that Vogel's guide admitted seeing a spike bull and that Vogel was "uncooperative at times and demeaning" when questioned by the warden.
"That's a lie," said Vogel, who served two decades as a police officer in Billings.
He called the timing of the charges "suspicious" and pointed out that the deputy director for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Art Noonan, is a longtime political operative. Noonan was executive director for the Montana Democratic Party when it was chaired by Dennis McDonald, who is seeking the party's nomination to oppose Rehberg in November.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim denied any political pressure to pursue a poaching case against Vogel. As for the three-month gap between the alleged shooting and the citation, Aasheim said investigations take time.
"You have to interview people, get search warrants, all those sorts of things," Aasheim said. "That's very simply what we did."
Vogel and others in the GOP have pointed to an audio recording of McDonald talking about the investigation as proof of political chicanery. McDonald spoke about the case the morning of March 3, at a Democratic event in Yellowstone County. The citations against Vogel were not filed with the court until later that day.
"He's trying to get Rehberg through me," said Vogel, who has taken a voluntary leave without pay from Rehberg's staff.
McDonald said Thursday he never discussed the case with wildlife officials and was merely repeating rumors that have circulated in the ranching community for weeks. He also said suggestions that he was given inside information were "absurd."
"That's just the Rehberg spin machine at work," he said.
McDonald also has injected politics into the case, questioning claims by Rehberg's office that the congressman was unaware of the poaching charges when he appointed Vogel state director.
Vogel was with four others on the day in question, including Mike Waite, also a Rehberg staffer, and a Bar-K Ranch employee who served as hunting guide.
After shooting a cow elk near the edge of the ranch, Vogel said he tracked the animal, gutted it, carted it out of the field and left.
However, earlier that morning, Vogel said the hunting party had come across a vehicle on nearby U.S. Forest Service land that they suspected belonged to other hunters. Just before he shot the cow elk, he said he heard at least two shots fired.
That night, a warden came to Vogel's motel room to ask about a dead spike elk found by workers on the Sun West Ranch, which is adjacent to Bar-K.
Vogel claims he cooperated with the warden and offered to return to the site the next day, but then didn't hear from state officials until Jan. 15. That's when five wardens showed up at his Billings home with a search warrant authorizing them to seize his .270-caliber rifle.
"They said they had found a round in the elk, a .270," he said. By then, Vogel had sold the weapon for $350, to an anonymous buyer at a Billings gun show held in mid-December, he said.
According to the affidavit, Vogel was the only member of his party carrying a .270 rifle.
Vogel said he was speaking out to set the record straight and against the advice of his lawyer, Lance Lovell of Billings.
"I don't believe in coincidences like that in politics," he said of being cited a day after becoming Rehberg's state director. "It just doesn't happen."