NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Lee has named his former special assistant and 2018 campaign manager Chris Devaney of Lookout Mountain to a spot on the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The governor also appointed Columbia businessman Stan R. Butt Sr., another supporter who has known Lee and his family for decades, to the panel.
Butt, the husband of former state Rep. Sheila Butt, a Republican, once had a run-in with game wardens with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the state's hunting, fishing and wildlife enforcement entity overseen by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and paid $245 in court costs and fines, TWRA records show.
Appointments to the commission have long been viewed as a major political plum that governors can and have awarded to supporters. Both Devaney and Butt's appointments must be confirmed by the General Assembly before they can serve.
TWRA licensure records show that Devaney, a Texas native, longtime political consultant and former Tennessee Republican Party chair who also worked for two then-U.S. senators, one of them being Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee, obtained his first Tennessee hunting and fishing permits in 2017.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, co-chair of the Tennessee Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus and an avid hunter and fisherman, showed some unease over the governor's appointment of Devaney.
"I live in Southeast Tennessee, and the last two commissioners we've had from our area, David Watson and Tony Sanders, are huge outdoorsmen, people that I've seen outdoors, people that I've seen on social media who go hunting and fishing and participate in outdoor activities," Bell said. "It is somewhat concerning to me that we now have a person who's been appointed to be on the commission whom I've never seen at an event."
Bell also said he considers Devaney a friend and noted he "may make a fantastic commissioner."
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, called the Fish and Wildlife Commission "very important, probably one of the second most sought after appointments in the state. And that shows you how important it is.
"I'm a little disappointed that [Devaney] would even let himself be considered for this," Gardenhire added. "His expertise is in a lot of other areas besides hunting and fishing and wildlife."
Appointments to the commission have often gone to a governor's friends and supporters.
A native of Texas, Devaney said that "having grown up hunting and fishing, the outdoors and Tennessee's natural resources are deeply important to me. It is an honor to receive an appointment to the TWRA by the governor and having the opportunity to serve in this capacity."
Devaney, whose grandfather was the late George Walls, a Texas apparel manufacturer who helped pioneer camouflage hunting wear, said he began hunting and fishing as a child in Texas, providing a reporter a photo of a Texas-issued hunter education certificate he earned there while in eighth grade.
He also showed a current Texas hunting license and 2014 license from Alabama.
In response to questions posed by the Times Free Press about various issues regarding Devaney and Butt, Lee press secretary Casey Black said the governor "has appointed qualified candidates who are committed to protecting our state's wildlife and natural resources."
TWRA and other records show that Butt and his three adult sons were cited by wildlife officers in November 2008 for violations while hunting in Overton County. They pleaded guilty or no contest in Sessions Court, according to TWRA records and an employee in the Overton County Circuit Court Clerk's office.
TWRA resource citation/warning documents show the elder Butt's violation involved hunting during bow season "while in possession [of] a firearm or accompanied by person in violation of a firearm." He later paid a $50 civil fine and $195 in court costs.
"We weren't hunting with a bow," Butt said in an interview. "We were hunting on a 5,000-acre lease. And in our ignorance we were hunting hogs on this lease, hogs were legal at the time. We didn't know that bow season [for deer] had opened that weekend. And we weren't hunting deer, we were hunting hogs."
Noting someone evidently had reported them, Butt said one of the wildlife officers who responded was a friend of his sons. "We didn't make any bones about it. We were carrying rifles, and I was carrying a sidearm. We thought we was cool hunting this 5,000-acre lease.
"They had to cite us with something so they cited us with possession of centerfire weapons during bow season," Butt added. Centerfire is a type of ammunition used for rifles, shotguns and handguns. "Hey, we weren't hunting deer, we had a dog with us," Butt said. "We were just having a good time, there were about six or eight of us."
Calling it "unfortunate," Butt said "it's one of them things, that's what I told them, I said, 'Hey, I can certainly understand how people get caught in those situations because I've been there."
TWRA records show no further violations for Butt. Two of his sons were cited in later years for several hunting or boating infractions.
Butt — who has a bachelor of science degree in wildlife biology, is a cattleman, a preacher and also dog breeder — now serves as executive director of the Tennessee Dairy Producers Association. He is a former executive director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association.
While Butt hasn't had any encounters with TWRA in the past 13 years, he did make news in Columbia back in 2016. He was arrested for driving off with a double-axle trailer that had been left in a lot with a for sale sign left in the window. Police had left the trailer behind a hardware store as part of a sting operation.
"I left my business card," Butt said. "I was looking at that trailer two or three weeks. Had a for sale sign, but I couldn't make out the [phone] number."
The Daily Herald in Columbia reported at the time that Butt had written on the card "Have trailer. Call." The Maury County Grand Jury declined to indict Butt.
During the 2018 campaign, Butt, who turns 73 this month, was chairman of Lee's agriculture coalition. "I worked really hard for his election," Butt said, noting that although many people who get involved in campaigns are "looking for something," he wasn't.
Butt said he's known the Lee family for decades, adding he met the family when writing an article about Lee's father, a then teen-aged Lee and his brother, an uncle and other family members, in regards to the family's Williamson County-based cattle operation. At the time, Butt was editor and publisher of the Cattlemen Association's magazine.
"I wasn't looking for anything," Butt said. But following Lee's unexpected GOP primary victory and later easy romp for governor in the general election, Lee's staff called to see if he was interested in anything. Butt said he voiced interest in an appointment to the Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Lee later called and said when a vacancy occurred on the 16-member panel — 13 commissioners are appointed and three, including the governor, are ex officio members — he would consider appointing him, Butt recalled.
Lee later called when the seat where Butt lives was coming up.
Bell, who knows Butt, noted "he has a good resume as being an outdoorsman and somebody who's participated. Somebody who's had, as I understand, one wildlife infraction in his background. But again, that's the governor's choice."
The senator observed that if Lee "wants to shake the commission up a little bit, that might be the reason he's putting Stan on there. I don't know, I mean I was on the same side as Stan on some issues here in Nashville. But, Stan, I know he can be a little aggressive, and again I was on the same side as him on a couple of issues. But he can be a little aggressive, which that may be the governor's intention. If it is, I understand."
Asked what approach he intends to take on the commission if lawmakers confirm his appointment, Butt said, "I would like to encourage officers to be more considerate of the people in the field, the people who buy licenses. And instead of having a police mindset, I'd like for them to consider the circumstance, just like what happened to me."
Butt said while he realizes much of the agency's money comes on permit fees and citation fines, "if there's a circumstance that's worthy, then people ought to be given the benefit of the doubt."
He pointed to a Maury County TWRA case some years back involving a father, his young son and an under-length fish they'd caught. The father was cited.
"Before they had a chance to throw it back," Butt added.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.