Wisconsin biologist and others charged with lying about caviar scheme
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Prosecutors charged the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' top sturgeon expert and three others in a sweeping investigation into illegal bartering for sturgeon caviar around Lake Winnebago.
Ryan Koenigs, dubbed the state’s "sturgeon general," was charged last week with obstructing an investigation into allegations that his employees have been funneling the valuable fish's eggs to a network of caviar processors under the guise of a scientific study.
Koenigs faces one count of obstructing a conservation warden, which is a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months in jail and $10,000 in fines. Online court records did not list an attorney for him. DNR spokeswoman Sarah Hoye said Koenigs was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 11 but declined further comment.
Officials said Koenigs could be the first of many to be charged in what investigators allege was a wide-ranging scheme involving multiple DNR employees and caviar processors.
Prosecutors have charged three Fond du Lac County residents in a sweeping investigation into illegal bartering for sturgeon caviar around Lake Winnebago.
Online court records show 51-year-old Shawn Wendt of Oakfield was charged Feb. 5 with two misdemeanor counts of unlawfully selling or bartering eggs. He could face up to a year in jail and $4,000 in fines if convicted. The records didn't list an attorney for Wendt and he didn't immediately return a message left at Wendt's on the Lake, the restaurant in Van Dyne where he tends bar.
According to the criminal complaint, a state Department of Natural Resources warden interviewed Wendt at the restaurant in January 2020 as part of an investigation into sturgeon caviar processing. State and federal law prohibits selling, trading or bartering sturgeon caviar.
Wendt told the warden that he has been processing sturgeon eggs into caviar for 15 years. He said people would bring him eggs, he would process them into caviar and then keep some for himself to serve at the restaurant. He denied paying for the eggs or making pre-arrangements on how much caviar he would keep as compensation.
Eighty-six-year-old Mary and 88-year-old Victor Schneider of the city of Fond du Lac were each charged Feb. 11 with being parties to misdemeanor bartering of eggs.
According to court documents, they told wardens in January 2020 that sturgeon anglers would bring in eggs for caviar processing and the couple would keep half of the caviar as compensation. Online court records did not list an attorney for either of them.
According to the court documents, they told investigators that former DNR Chief Warden Todd Schaller used to stop by their house to pick up caviar. Schaller retired from the DNR in January 2020.
Sturgeon are bony fish that can grow as large as 12 feet long and their eggs are highly coveted as caviar. Wisconsin, which prides itself on outdoor traditions such as hunting and fishing, holds an sturgeon spearing season every February on the Lake Winnebago system near Oshkosh, about 90 miles northwest of Milwaukee. This year’s season began on Feb. 13.
According to the criminal complaint, Koenigs has served as the DNR's top sturgeon biologist since 2012 and is the lead coordinator for the department's spearing season, which is held every February on the Lake Winnebago system. He oversees the roughly 60 DNR workers who staff registration stations during the season.
The DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a joint investigation in 2017 into allegations that DNR workers had been illegally selling or trading sturgeon caviar in violation of state and federal law. The investigation culminated in January 2020 and uncovered multiple people who were illegally selling, purchasing, bartering or trading sturgeon eggs, the complaint states.
Investigators interviewed Koenigs in January 2020. He told them that DNR registration workers collect eggs as part of a fertility study. If a spearer wants the eggs back, the workers won't collect them or they'll return them after they've been studied, Koenigs said.
Investigators asked him why workers at a registration station were putting eggs in a cooler marked for a caviar processor. Koenigs said he didn't know the processor, that staff shouldn't be taking custody of eggs and that he didn't know the processor kept a cooler at the station.
He said he had never called the processor. When the investigators showed him phone records confirming that Koenigs had in fact done so in May 2018, he said he didn't know what he and the processor discussed, but that he was sure it wasn't sturgeon eggs.
Collection of eggs
He insisted he didn't know that any DNR workers were collecting eggs and giving them to members of the public who weren't involved in department research. He added, however, that if a spearer asks for eggs to be taken to a processor as part of the research, DNR workers will do so and that processors sometimes thank DNR staffers with jars of caviar.
Investigators interviewed Kendall Kamke, a DNR fisheries supervisor, the same day. He said he was guilty of taking eggs to a processor “here and there” and that processors would give him jars of caviar in return. One processor gave him moonshine, he said.
Investigators also uncovered official DNR logs showing that caviar was going to a processor, according to the complaint. A former DNR fisheries supervisor named Ronald Bruch told them staff had received caviar from processors for years and ate it at meetings.
Two processors told investigators that staff would give them eggs; one of them said he made 65 pounds of caviar out of them in 2015. He and Koenigs were both nervous about the arrangement because it was prohibited, he said. A DNR sturgeon registration employee told them that one year, they threw out all the eggs because wardens were asking too many questions about them, the complaint states.
Investigators searched Koenigs' home in June and seized his DNR-issued phone. They discovered it had been erased in April, four months after they interviewed him, and reset without the department's permission.
Last week, Koenigs told investigators that his staff were indeed taking eggs from five to six sturgeon to processors annually after research rather than throwing them away. He also said he accepted 20 to 30 jars of caviar annually from processors and disbursed it to as many as a dozen co-workers for their personal use, according to the complaint.
His false statements added “hundreds” of hours to an investigation “that could have been dramatically shortened had he told investigators the truth," the complaint said.