Wednesday, April 7, 2010

(UPDATED) Indicted state wildlife officials still on the job

Brown County prosecutor Jessica A. Little expressed surprise Tuesday that six Ohio Division of Wildlife officials were back at work following their arraignment Monday on felony counts.

Little said also that if higher up in the parent Ohio Department of Natural Resources were aware of details in the case - including discipline - and failed to take appropriate action then they too “may be culpable” in the matter.

At issue is an alleged incident in which Allan Wright – state wildlife officer assigned to Brown County - allowed South Carolina wildlife officer Eric Vaughn to use his Ohio address in order to obtain an Ohio hunting license on Nov. 5, 2006.

Wright is charged with two counts of tampering with records (third-degree felonies) and one count of falsification for allegedly altering official Natural Resources records (a first-degree misdemeanor).

Also charged with one count of obstructing justice and one count of complicity to obstructing justice were Wildlife Division chief David Graham, assistant Wildlife Division chief Randy Miller, Wildlife Division law enforcement administrator James Lehman, Wildlife District 5 (southwest Ohio) director Todd Haines and the agency’s human resources manager Michelle Ward-Tackett. These are fifth-degree felonies.

It is alleged that these officials should have handled the Wright case differently and investigated it as a criminal matter and not as an administrative matter that resulted in a verbal reprimand for Wright.

A subsequent four-month-long investigation by the Ohio Inspector General pointed to irregularities in how the matter was handled.

This investigation included a series of interviews conducted by Inspector General Attorney Ron Nichols with various defendants. In the case of Graham the interview lasted 1 hour and 15 minutes and is transcribed on 29 pages of testimony given under oath on Feb. 1..

On the heals of the sworn testimonies and the Inspector General’s report, Little presented the case to the Brown County grand jury with the subsequent filing of charges.

Each defendant posted a $10,000 bond, but returned to work, surprising Little.

Following any criminal investigation resulting in the filing of felony charges Little said she “would have expected“ the Natural Resources Department to place the defendants on paid administrative leave.

"Due to the sensitive positions, accountability of the offices and access to documents and employees, it would have been prudent to have placed them on paid administrative leave," Little said.

Natural Resources spokesman Mike Shelton said that agency is currently reviewing the question.

“(There is) no established policy, perhaps because it’s such a rare thing. We are reviewing per the Inspector General’s report on whether we should take further administrative action.”

Graham said also that the practice of providing complementary hunting and fishing licenses to out-of-state wildlife officials was common practice, suggesting that the Wildlife Division’s constituents “…always felt the Division of Wildlife people should get free licenses but – and even though we had participated in that, I – with the changing attitudes of society towards government workers and what people should have access to, I felt like it was something we probably shouldn’t be continuing to do.”

Even so, says Graham, with 20/20 hindsight the agency could have handled the matter differently.

“It – again, I could sit here right now and say yes, that makes more sense but going back to the way I was viewing it before where it was – I was only seeing it as an administrative issue, then the other way made as much sense.”

Graham said also that he believed that Wright nor any other Natural Resources official made no attempt to hide anything.

"...the fact that he individually used his home address, I don't feel like there was an intent to do something to cover something up while he did it.." Graham said in his testimony.

For his part Nichols pointed out that had the Wildlife Division caught a member of the general public falsifying a hunting license application or allowing a non-resident to use the address of a resident then the agency would seek criminal charges.

Graham’s response was “Probably.”

The chief said as well on page 12 of the 29-page document that he kept Natural Resources Deputy Director Tony Celebrezze in the loop, saying that the official is his supervisor with whom he had some verbal discussions.

“...Whether he’d remember those or not I don’t know but I, you know, I had made him aware that we had this investigation…” Graham said in the document.

However, on page 9 of the Inspector General's report the document says "...None of the five reported Wright's alleged violations to the ODNR Director or his designee and Law Enforcement Administrator Mike Taylor, as required by ODNR policy and the Governor's policy."

Of concern to Nichols as well is that the current system of issuing hunting and fishing documents does not require proof of residency in spite of the fact that many people use their driver’s license for identification.

Graham noted this is especially true for Internet license sales and the fact the state has communities of individuals who don’t possess driver’s licenses.

Throughout the document Nichols appears to be skeptical about the agency’s handling of the matter and its laxness in dealing with potential and alleged criminal activity

“...So I kind of take the analogy that if 10 cars in front of me run a red light and I’m the 11th car and I go through and I get caught and say well, yeah, but the other 10 cars did it so it’s okay because it’s common practice, everybody does it. That’s not a good argument. It’s still a violation of law…”

Nichols further said he checked to see if it was a common practice for an Ohio wildlife officer to allow his address to be used by a non-resident.

“And what I found, too, was - you know, I did check to see if this is a common practice and the only thing that I came up with is it’s a common practice for Allan Wright. It’s not a common practice for other officers…” Nichols said in the document.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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