Friday, September 3, 2010

UPDATED Court case against Wildlife officials drags on

Thursday’s court hearing involving five indicated top Ohio Division of Wildlife officials proved a lengthy, exhausting affair.

The largely technical hearing lasted about five hours before Brown County Common Pleas Court Judge Scott Gusweiler.

At issue was whether the courts should grant a defense motion to suppress interviews made by the five Wildlife Division officials to the Ohio Inspector General.

Among the five Wildlife Division officials charged with two felony counts are the agency’s chief, one assistant chief, a district supervisor, the division’s law enforcement administrator and the agency’s human resources manager.

While the defense did not call any of its witnesses - which included Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Sean Logan - the Brown County prosecutor called three witnesses.

The prosecution’s three witnesses included two from the Ohio Inspector General’s office - the agency which conducted the matter’s original investigation - as well as one called witness from the Natural Resources Department.

These three witnesses were grilled not only by the Brown County prosecutor but also by the defendants’ five attorneys.

“I felt that I was in the boxing ring with five of them beating up on me. But they were just doing their job,” said Brown County prosecutor Jessica A. Little.

While Judge Gusweiler did not rule on any matter he did listen to the testimony of the witnesses as well as the questioning presented by both sides, Little said.

Gusweiler said he would render a decision in a couple of weeks, Little said.

“I presented 21 exhibits; six of them were transcripts of interviews before the Inspector General office, which is what the defense is trying to suppress,” Little said.

Closing arguments were presented at the end of the hearing; a point that Little said was better than filing more paperwork.

“I didn’t want to kill any more trees by writing another brief; there’s been enough of those already,” Little said.

As for the prosecution’s three witnesses, Little says she believes they “got the facts before the court and which the judge needed to be aware of in order to render a decision.”

At the core of the legal wrangling is the so-called “Garrity Rights” rule. Here, the question is whether Garrity will apply to the interviews conducted of the five indicted state officials by the Inspector General’s office.

The courts have ruled under Garrity that public employees are protected against self-incrimination while being investigated internally and thus face adverse action such as losing one’s job, Little said.

However, Little believes that the Garrity Rights rule applies to internal agency investigations, not to external investigations in which the investigating party has no authority over hiring or firing.

“It’s a right the private sector does not enjoy. In my opinion, the Inspector General’s office was independent of the agency being investigated,” Little said.

In attendance at the hearing as well was Allan Wright, the state Wildlife Officer assigned to Brown County.

It was an alleged incident involving Wright that launched the subsequent complicated legal proceedings involving his five superiors.

Wright was alleged to have allowed a South Carolina wildlife officer to use his Ohio address in order to obtain an Ohio hunting license on Nov. 6, 2006.

While the initial case against Wright was voluntarily dropped, a special prosecutor was assigned by Little to oversee the matter.

Adams County assistant prosecutor David Kelly informed Judge Gusweiler in May that he intended to conduct an independent investigation of Wright and presentation to the Brown County Grand Jury.

To date no announcement has been made regarding either an investigation of Wright or any presentation to a grand jury. Wright was reinstated to his post in late May.

Besides Wright, a number of other Natural Resources Department personal were in attendance in the courtroom.

Among them were Wildlife Division employees Jim Marshall, acting agency chief and retired assistant chief; Vicki Mountz, the agency's executive administrator for information and education programs; and Susan Vance, wildlife communications specialist for the agency's District 4 (southeast Ohio) office.

These four Wildlife Division officials as well as Wright attended the hearing as private citizens, not as Wildlife Division agents.

However, those Natural Resources Department personnel who did attend the hearing in an official capacity included Logan; Bret Benack, the department's labor relations chief and who did testify; as well as Kathy Lucas, the department's legal counsel.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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