CAMBRIDGE, Md. — Two special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were flying on routine patrol over the scenic Chesapeake Bay one fall morning when they spotted huge piles of bait ringing a nearby pond below.
Immediately they suspected that local hunters were illegally trying to lure into shotgun range waterfowl from the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Hoping to catch them, the agents set up surveillance. For several days, they hid in tall marsh grass and waited for telltale pops of gunfire to pierce the crisp autumn air.
But much to their surprise, no one appeared. No shots were fired. And no arrests were ever made. Instead, the agents--and some of their superiors at the wildlife service--found themselves staring down the political barrel of Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican and avid sportsman who owns prime vacation land nearby.
How the investigation fell apart remains unclear. What happened next, however, provided the federal game officials a stern lesson in the perils of tangling with a member of Congress, particularly one with Gramm's reputation for relentless pursuit.
It was a battle the government agents would not win: The surveillance operation ultimately was deemed a failure; the senator was given an official apology and the careers of several wildlife officials were tarnished. Not long after Gramm weighed in with complaints, one refuge manager was removed over the objections of his supervisors. Three other wildlife service employees were reassigned.
Although the surveillance occurred in 1987, the episode continues to reverberate today: The enforcement of modern-day game laws that govern the century-old tradition of waterfowl hunting on Maryland's famed Eastern Shore has been relaxed and the presence of federal officers on these bucolic fields diminished.
Moreover, the incident provides insight into the operating style of 53-year-old William Philip Gramm, a candidate for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, and his willingness to wield political power on behalf of his friends. At least one of his fellow hunters--a prominent Washington lobbyist--later became a significant donor to Gramm's campaigns and provided him with personal legal services.
It is not unusual for members of Congress to take a deep interest in matters involving their constituents or in federal agencies that they oversee. But in this case Gramm neither worked on behalf of anyone from Texas nor served on a committee overseeing fish and wildlife issues.
"I think [Gramm] takes an expansive view of his power and influence," said Walter Dean Burnham, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. "That is just the way he plays the game. In a sense, he likes to throw his weight around."
Gramm and his adversaries remain at odds about the senator's role in changing enforcement practices on the Eastern Shore.
"Money and power usually prevail in our system of government," said William C. Ashe, a former Fish and Wildlife Service administrator who was transferred amid political pressure. "It may not be right, but that is the way it is."
For his part, Gramm said in an interview that he had no intention of influencing the wildlife agency but sought only to relay the concerns of his neighbors. He said law enforcement officials had targeted him because he criticized management of the refuge.
"Obviously," he said, "someone was out to get me."
The bay that spawned the confrontation between Gramm and the Fish and Wildlife Service--the Chesapeake--is the nation's largest estuary, an environmentally fragile playground that stretches from northeast of Baltimore to southeast of Richmond, Va. The area in Dorchester County, Md., along the Eastern Shore, particularly the segment near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, ranks among the nation's most desirable locations for waterfowl hunting. President Clinton and retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf are among the many celebrities who have hunted in the region.
A two-hour drive from the nation's capital, the Eastern Shore also provides a convenient anteroom for lobbyists and members of Congress, who have hatched many deals during weekend hunting excursions. Many wealthy residents also lease or own property on the outskirts of the Blackwater refuge to run private hunting clubs stocked with tens of thousands of captive-bred mallards.
These state-licensed regulated shooting areas permit landowners to hunt without having to observe daily limits and other federal restrictions. Sometimes, in the zeal to maximize their harvest during an abbreviated stay, local hunters and their guests run afoul of game laws. This is most commonly done by distributing grain on the ground and then shooting wild birds as they come to feed--a practice known as baiting--or by using the mallards as live decoys.