Congressman Garret Graves made a surprise appearance at Thursday’s Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, intending to set the record straight on specifics regarding his legislation that would transfer management of red snapper from the federal government to the five Gulf states.

But Graves (R-Baton Rouge) never anticipated that his presentation to the commission would be interrupted by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Charlie Melancon, who referred to it as “four-Pinocchio speech,” he said. 

“I just laughed and looked over and said, ‘Wait a minute. Did you just call me a liar?” Graves said after the meeting Thursday afternoon. “Are you kidding me? Did I just roll back into second grade?

“I don’t know what words to use. It was really just incredible.”

Graves said he didn’t speak with Melancon after the meeting, but suspects the secretary was upset that he came to address the commission in person.

“Obviously, there’s a certain narrative that certain folks wanted the commission to have. And there’s another part of the story they didn’t want them to have,” Graves said. “I think that any effort to thwart and impede accurate information is certainly not in the public interest, and to let the commission continue to operate on half-truths is dangerous. 

“I was really shocked there was an effort to impede dialogue and briefing. I mean, look, it’s our bill. Don’t come tell me what our bill does.”

Melancon, who did not return a phone call seeking comment about the Pinocchio reference, opened up a firestorm of controversy earlier this summer when he came out in opposition to H.R. 3094, saying his department could not afford to manage the red snapper fishery without federal funding. 

Federal funding was removed from Graves’ bill in June by an amendment from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), which Melancon termed a “poison pill amendment” designed to kill the legislation in the House of Representatives.

The prior LDWF administration under then-Gov. Bobby Jindal supported state management of red snapper, and Louisiana was integral in developing the five-state plan that Graves’ legislation would create. Current Gov. John Bel Edwards also expressed support for state manatement during his gubernatorial campaign.

Graves said he ultimately decided to attend the meeting and address the commission because he didn’t want them basing any future decisions on inaccurate information presented to them by the department. 

“My entire goal was just to go set the record straight and if the commission wanted to take an action one way or another, they could do it based on facts rather than a bunch of completely baseless information,” Graves said. “And some of that stuff about the poison pill and it being a killer amendment — that’s just bogus. There’s no basis for that. There just isn’t.

“And it’s not an unfunded mandate. That’s simply not true. It’s absolutely not true.”

At the July commission meeting, department biologists estimated it would cost the state $10 million-plus to administer the first year of red snapper management, including a stock assessment.

“They said the bill was going to require the state of Louisiana to do all the research and stock assessments. That’s not true, either. The bill doesn’t say that,” Graves said. “The state, under the bill, is not expected to do data collections and research.

"That remains a federal responsibility. I wanted to clarify that.”

Graves said it was apparent to him this spring — when he had a conference call with the department on April 6 and an in-person meeting on May 9 — that they were not supportive of the legislation.

“In both instances, they were unable to speak to the specifics of the bill, which indicated to me that they had not read it. But they had clearly expressed concerns about it,” he said. “So you add all this stuff up: Before they read the bill, they had problems with it. 

“How do you do that? It’s like not liking a house that you’ve never seen — it’s very clear there was an agenda here, a certain narrative they want to maintain. I guess I disrupted that narrative and agenda, but I don’t have any nefarious intent. Ninety-nine percent of the public supports our bill and politically, their position is simply unsustainable. You can’t go out there and represent a fraction of a percent of the public and think you’re going to get away with it.”

Despite the department’s opposition, Graves said he plans on continuing to push the bi-partisan legislation in Washington, D.C.

“All four other Gulf states have verified their position on the bill. I kind of view the commission as speaking for the state. The commission passed a resolution unanimously supporting the bill, so that’s what I view as  the state’s position,” Graves said. “Obviously, there are contrary views between the position of the secretary and the position of the commission. 

“The way I’m viewing it is the commission is speaking for the state at this point.”

Graves said he stands behind everything he told the commission today regarding specifics on the bill and how it would possibly affect the state. 

“I think in this case the truth probably hurt a little bit because it wasn’t consistent with the narrative that some people wanted the commission to believe,” Graves said. “I stand by everything that I said. I wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t accurate and I didn’t fully believe it and couldn’t back it up.

“And I will be more than happy to have any public debate defending what I said at any point in time. It’s absolutely silly to tell the author of a bill what his intent was, or the author of an amendment what his intent was.”