Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Glacial pace marks Brown County wildlife officer issues

At the nucleus of the on-going ethics and legal questions swirling around what’s being called the “Brown County Five,” rests Allan Wright, the state wildlife officer assigned to Brown County.

Among the Wright-related items being looked at is the Ohio Department of Natural Resources forwarding material to the Ohio Ethics Commission. This information transfer centers on Wright’s affiliation as a so-called “pro staff” member with a Michigan-based custom muzzle-loading rifle builder.

The Department gave the material to the Ohio Ethics Commission so that the latter agency can “provide advice” as it relates to any potential violation of Ohio’s ethics rules, a Natural Resources official said.

Related to the legal issues intertwined with this entire episode, in November 2006 Wright allowed his home address to be used by a South Carolina wildlife officer in order to buy an Ohio resident hunting license.

In regards to the law pertaining to deliberately skirting residency requirements, the Ohio Revised Code establishes that “No person shall procure or attempt to procure a hunting license by fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, or any false statement.”

In cases of this type an offender can be charged with a forth-degree misdemeanor. Such an offense is punishable by a fine of up to $250, 30 days in jail, or both. In addition, a judge can suspend an offender’s hunting or fishing license privileges.

“... as with most other potential wildlife violations, the officer has the discretion to determine whether the action warrants a citation or not depending on the circumstances of the case at hand,” said Mike Shelton, the Natural Resources Department’s chief of external affairs, in an e-mail sent today (Nov. 24) to The News-Herald.

Confusion arising from a non-resident seeking help from a license-issuing agent who then provides incorrect advice is an example where leeway is an option for a wildlife officer, Shelton said.

In Wright’s case the officer received an Ohio Division of Wildlife verbal reprimand on Sept. 18, 2008 for “...failure of good behavior,” though the rebuke acknowledged that Wright “... had supervisory guidance to do so...”

This reprimand was expunged from Wright’s personnel file on Sept. 18, 2009 and as required by conditions spelled out in the official document, Shelton said.

All of which set into motion a months-long chain of events that included felony charges being brought against five Wildlife Division officials.

The charges stem from a belief held by Brown County Prosecutor Jessica A. Little that the five officials - including agency chief David M. Graham - should have handled the Wright issue as a criminal matter and not as an administrative matter.

Little acted upon an investigation conducted by the Ohio Inspector General’s office of the five agency officials. It is this office which turned its findings over to Little.

In April, the five administrators were indicted in Brown County Common Pleas Court on two felony counts each. Wright was also charged in the same court with two felony counts and one misdemeanor count.

During the on-going course of legal activity, Little appointed David Kelley as the special prosecutor for the Wright case. Kelley is also an assistant prosecutor in adjacent Adams County where he served from 2001 to 2008 as its prosecutor before being called to active military duty.

In May, Kelley announced that he was dropping all charges against Wright, pending an independent investigation and possible presentation of evidence to a Brown County Grand Jury.

Subsequently, Wright returned to his wildlife officer post in Brown County.

Likewise, after a several-month period of being placed on paid administrative leave the five Wildlife Division officials were called back to work Nov. 19 by out-going Natural Resources Department director Shawn Logan.

The long-term absence of the five officials cost the Wildlife Division about $250,000.

However, the charges against these five officials remain with Little having filed an appeal before the state’s 12th District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

She made this appeal after being rebuffed by Brown County Common Pleas Court Judge Scott T. Gusweiler on a legal issue called the Garrity Rule. This legal fiat protects at least some civil servants from making potentially self-incriminating statements to an investigating agency such as the Ohio Inspector General.

Still left unanswered is the current status of both Kelley’s investigative work and any investigation that might be on-going by the Ohio Ethics Commission.

“I really can’t comment on on-going investigations; I’m waiting on a couple of things, including the appeal,” Kelley said. “I’m kind of letting that run its course, but regardless of which way (the appeal) goes it won’t be the deciding factor. However, it can determine the manner in which the investigation proceeds.”

Kelley did say too that he anticipates the matter will “progress within the next 60 to 120 days.”

“I don’t see any need for this to be dragged out forever,” Kelley said.

What is known is that the Natural Resources Department forwarded to the Ohio Ethics Commission the Department's findings about Wright’s connection with Okemos, Michigan-based Ultimate Firearms company. This firm makes high-end muzzle-loading rifles with one “Ultimate Muzzleloader” model starting at $3,750.

“In addition, we requested the Ohio Ethics Commission to provide advice regarding Officer Wright’s pro shop activity on April 15, 2010,” said Shelton, in a Nov. 22 e-mail sent to The News-Herald.

Ultimate Firearms’ web site posts Wright as a member of the firm’s pro staff. It also notes in the pro staff section that Wright is an “Ohio Wildlife Officer.”

Among Ultimate Firearms’ other listed pro staff members are such well-known television hunting show personalities as Bob Foulkrod, Brenda Valentine, and Hank Parker.

In his Ultimate Firearms “Testimonials” web site appearance, Wright is quoted as saying “.. Being a wildlife officer with two young boys, time is a valued commodity at my household, and the ease of cleaning the Ultimate Muzzleloader is one of the most important features of shooting the firearm.”

Wright also is featured on the web site’s “300 Yard Club” posting, showing him with a coyote shot at 300 yards or more with an Ultimate Firearms’ muzzle-loading rifle.

Previously, Ultimate Firearms had declined to comment on any association with Wright.

As for the Natural Resources Department’s forwarding of information about Wright’s association with Ultimate Firearms to the Ohio Ethics Commission, that agency is required by law to remain mum, officials there say.

“We cannot comment on any matters that are of an investigative nature by (state) statute,” said Susan Willeke, the agency’s education and communications administrator.

Asked, however, to speak in the broadest of context on how long most investigations take to complete, Willeke said “that it’s tough to predict.”

“We (always) do want it to be thorough, which is what the public expects,” Willeke said.

Messages seeking comment on these matters have been left with Wright at his Wildlife Division-supplied telephone number.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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