The five indicted Ohio Division of Wildlife officials won an important round in Brown County Common Pleas Court Monday.
There, Judge Scott T. Gusweiler ruled in favor of the five defendants, including the Wildlife Division’s chief, David Graham.
At issue was the suppression of material collected during an investigation by the Ohio Inspector General. This disputed material relates to the so-called “Garrity Rule” which protects civil servants against self-incrimination while being investigated internally and thus could face such potentially adverse action as losing one’s job.
It is the contention of the defendants that they are protected by the “Garrity Rule,” though that opinion is opposed by the Brown County Prosecutor Jessica A. Little.
Judge Gusweiler agrees with the defendants, however, a plus for them but a setback for Little.
These defendants include Chief 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.
Each of the defendants are charged with two fifth-degree felonies for their involvement in a matter that initially focused on Alan Wright, state wildlife officer assigned to Brown County. Charges against Wright were later dropped though a special prosecutor has said he intends to investigate Wright independently and may present his evidence to a grand jury.
The five administrators were placed on paid administrative leave which has thus far cost the Wildlife Division about $190,000.
Gusweiler further states in his Oct. 4 Judgment Entry that prosecutor Little must “...prepare a full and complete transcript of the grand jury proceedings in these cases and forward same to the Court. The law is clear if these statements were used in the Grand Jury or a witness to the statements, to wit: Ron Nichols testified at grand jury these cases must be dismissed.”
Ron Nichols is with the Ohio Inspector General office.
“This is the whole ball game in the case,” said Mike Shelton, spokesman for the parent Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “It’s certainly a significant movement in the case and if the matter is dismissed then the affected employees will return to work. We don’t have a time frame on that and the ruling doesn’t specify when the prosecutor has to submit that but we hope it will be sooner rather than later.”
Shelton also said he earlier mistakenly had expressed the opinion that if the cases do go to trial and the five defendants are ultimately found guilty they would lose their pension benefits.
Not true, and based upon a thorough review of the Ohio Revised Code, Shelton said.
Brown County Prosecutor Jessica A. Little was not available for comment but is expected to return to her office Wednesday.
A call to one of the defendants’ attorneys has not yet been returned.
In other, related, news Ohio Department of Natural Resources director Shawn D. Logan has stepped in fill a large void as a result of the Wildlife Division officials being placed on paid administrative leave.
Former acting Wildlife Division chief - and also a former assistant chief - Jim Marshall stepped down after staying several months beyond his intended retirement.
That left two assistant chief positions vacant pending the Brown County court matter. These posts are temporally being being filled by 25-year Wildlife Division employee Sue Howard as well as Ray Petering.
Howard is the agency's business administrator while Petering is the Wildlife Division's group administrator for its fisheries section.
They join acting chief John Daugherty, who is the Wildlife Division's district manager for District Two (northwest Ohio).
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn