Mum's the word after shake-up rattles group

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There was a lot of noise coming out of the National Wild Turkey Federation headquarters in Edgefield last week -- followed by dead silence.

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After a meeting, the group's 18-member board ousted two senior executives. The next day, chief executive officer Rob Keck abruptly resigned.

The departure of the man who has been the face and voice of turkey conservation for three decades will take effect June 1, offering the NWTF an opportunity to locate a successor.

It also leaves unanswered questions about what happened. So far, no one's talking.

"We are unable to discuss personnel matters," said Tammy Sapp, the group's vice president for communications.

The dismissal of chief operating officer Carl Brown and senior vice president Dick Rosenlieb occurred after a board inquiry into management practices.

Sapp would not elaborate, but said no allegations of criminal activity have been made.

According to Sapp, Keck resigned voluntarily.

"Obviously, it was his decision," she said. "The board is now searching for a suitable candidate."

The three men are among the most tenured and highest paid within the NWTF, which has about 300 employees and 550,000 members.

Keck, with 30 years of service, earned $360,765 in salary and retirement, plus $57,156 in expenses, in 2005, the most recent year for which complete figures are available.

Brown, with 28 years, earned $293,858 plus a $23,287 expense account. Rosenlieb, a 19-year employee, earned $173,977 plus $19,384 in expenses.

Although the salaries were high, so was their level of success.

The NWTF, which relies heavily on volunteer fund-raising banquets, pulled in $48.1 million in 2005, according to its tax return.

The organization, which finances programs to expand and restore turkey populations, also received the highest rating possible by groups that rate charities on how well they use the money they generate without absorbing it on internal expenses.

Keck, a high school art teacher who joined forces with the NWTF in 1978, has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to a changing world, especially when hunting and conservation are involved.

The NWTF was established 35 years ago to save the wild turkey from extinction. Over time, it spread its message of conservation and education to all 50 states and beyond.

To date, the NWTF has spent $285 million on such efforts, and its original mission is accomplished, with turkeys thriving in virtually every locale that wants them.

Where does that leave the NWTF, with its huge membership, opulent headquarters and its successful fund-raising network?

Keck and his team have expanded the organization's role into other areas with programs to encourage women, youngsters and disabled outdoorsmen to spend more time outside.

They also give money freely to departments of natural resources, whose meager budgets are often gutted by politicians; and to other non-profits, such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

What's in store for the group, once its principals have left?

Sapp believes the existing business plan, and the NWTF's size and dedication, will enable it to continue to grow.

"We have approximately 1,000 banquets coming up very soon and more than 2,500 of them by the end of spring," she said.

"We will remain a strong organization and this will bring opportunities to do new and different things."

As far as what happened inside the boardroom, the volunteers and members of the organization might never know.

Peggy Anne Vallery, the NWTF's president, sent out a mass e-mail to members Friday, but she offered no details on the shake-up.

"While the organization has undergone change, it's still made up of more than a half million of the most passionate and dedicated volunteers as well as our amazingly supportive and generous partners and sponsors," Sapp wrote. "Because of all these wonderful people, we're an organization that will emerge from this and move forward into an era of conservation success."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.


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