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Texas authorities find Cheney at fault in shooting, cite him for failing to have valid hunting stamp

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February 14, 2006

Vice President Dick Cheney violated Texas hunting law by not having a valid hunting stamp on his license and has been given a warning citation by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department following Cheney’s shooting of a fellow quail hunter Saturday on the private Armstrong Ranch in the south part of the state.

The department also found the accident was caused by a “hunter’s judgment factor” when Cheney sprayed another hunter while aiming at flying birds.

The report said the victim, prominent Republican attorney Harry Whittington of Austin, was retrieving a downed bird and stepped out of the hunting line he was sharing with Cheney. “Another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest at approximately 30 yards,” the report said.

Cheney, an experienced hunter, has not commented publicly about the accident. His office said Monday night in a statement that Cheney had a $125 nonresident hunting license and has sent a $7 check to cover the cost of the stamp. “The staff asked for all permits needed, but was not informed of the $7 upland game bird stamp requirement,” the statement said.

Whittington also received a warning for failing to have the stamp. A department spokesman said warnings are being issued in most cases because the stamp requirement only went into effect five months ago and many hunters aren’t aware of it.

Whittington was in stable condition at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial and was moved from intensive care to a “step-down unit” Monday. Doctors decided to leave several birdshot pellets lodged in his skin rather than try to remove them.

Katharine Armstrong, owner of the ranch where the shooting occurred, said it happened toward the end of the hunt, when it was still sunny but as darkness was encroaching and they were preparing to go inside. She said Whittington made a mistake by not announcing that he had walked up to rejoin the hunting line, and Cheney didn’t see him as he tried to down a bird.

Armstrong said she saw Cheney’s security detail running toward the scene. “The first thing that crossed my mind was he had a heart problem,” she told The Associated Press.

She said Cheney stayed “close but cool” while the agents and medical personnel treated Whittington, then took him by ambulance to the hospital. Later, the hunting group sat down for dinner while Whittington was being treated, receiving updates from a family member at the hospital. Armstrong described Cheney’s demeanor during dinner as “very worried” about Whittington.

Pamela Willeford, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, another member of the hunting party, told The Dallas Morning News for a story in Tuesday’s editions that she and Cheney didn’t realize Whittington had picked up a bird and caught up with them.

Willeford said she has hunted with Cheney before and would again.

“He’s a great shot. He’s very safety conscious. This is something that unfortunately was a bad accident and when you’re with a group like that, he’s safe or safer than all the rest of us,” she said.

The accident raised questions about Cheney’s adherence to hunting safety practices and the White House’s failure to disclose the accident in a timely way.

Duane Harvey, president of the Wisconsin Hunter Education Instructors Association, said if Whittington had made his presence known “that would have been a polite thing to do.” But, he added, “it’s still the fault upon the shooter to identify his target and what is beyond it.”

President Bush was told about Cheney’s involvement in the accident shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday _ about an hour after it occurred _ but the White House did not disclose the accident until Sunday afternoon, and then only in response to press questions.

Facing a press corps upset that news had been withheld, press secretary Scott McClellan said, “I think you can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job.”

Armstrong said she told Cheney on Sunday morning that she was going to inform the local paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. She said he agreed, and the newspaper was the first to report the incident on its Web site Sunday afternoon.

Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said that about an hour after Cheney shot Whittington, the head of the Secret Service’s local office called the Kenedy County sheriff to report the accident. “They made arrangements at the sheriff’s request to have deputies come out and interview the vice president the following morning at 8 a.m. and that indeed did happen,” Zahren said.

At least one deputy showed up at the ranch’s front gate Saturday evening and asked to speak to Cheney but was turned away by the Secret Service, Zahren said. There was some miscommunication that arrangements already had been made to interview Cheney the next morning, he said.

Gilbert San Miguel, chief deputy sheriff for Kenedy County, said the department’s report had not been completed Monday and that it was being handled as a hunting accident, although he would not comment about what exactly they were investigating. Both the sheriff’s department and the state have determined that alcohol did not appear to be a factor.