Speculation and rumors that the Brown County Five felony-indicted state wildlife officials will cop to a reduced misdemeanor charge in exchange for retirement are just that - rumors.
And bad ones to boot.
Yet at least one item is true; that being, the filing of retirement paperwork by one of the indicted Ohio Division of Wildlife officials.
At issue is the on-going legal matter involving five top Wildlife Division officials: the agency’s chief, David Graham; one of its assistant chiefs, Randy Miller; it law enforcement administrator, James Lehman; Wildlife District Five (southwest Ohio) director, Todd Haines; and the Wildlife Division’s human resources manager, Michelle Ward-Tackett.
Miller - who has 31 years with the Wildlife Division - filed retirement paperwork on Nov. 1, with an effective date of Nov. 30, says Mike Shelton, the Natural Resources Department’s chief of legislative services/media relations.
Each of the indicted Wildlife Division officials has been charged in Brown County Court with two fifth-degree felony counts. Those are one count of obstructing justice and one count of complicity to obstructing justice. Each count can result in up to 12 months in prison, a fine of up to $2,500, or both.
All five officials were placed on paid administrative leave in April. The to-date paid administrative leave cost for the parent Ohio Department of Natural Resources is $239,000.
The court matter stems from an investigation conducted by the Ohio Inspector General’s office. It is alleged that the five officials should have handled differently a disciplinary matter involving the state wildlife officer assigned to Brown County; doing so as a criminal matter and not as an administrative issue.
It was alleged that Brown County wildlife officer Alan Wright allowed a South Carolina wildlife officer to use his Ohio address in obtaining an Ohio resident hunting license in 2006.
Felony charges against Wright were later dropped, however, requested by a special prosecutor assigned to the case who said also that he would conduct his own independent investigation. Nothing further has been heard regarding this matter, though.
Subsequently, legal wrangling involving the other Wildlife Division employees led Brown County Common Please Court Judge Scott T. Gusweiler to issue a decree that at least some of the evidence collected by the Ohio Inspector General be suppressed on a legal point known as the “Garrity Rule.”
This legal shield protects civil servants from making potentially self-incriminating statements to an investigating agency such as the Ohio Inspector General.
On the flip side, Brown County prosecutor Jessica A. Little has begun the process to reverse Gusweiler’s action. She is taking the steps required to appeal the decision before the state’s 12th District Court of Appeals. No further lower court action can take place until Little’s request is acted upon by the appellate court.
All of this was outlined in an Oct. 28 e-mail memo sent to Natural Resources Department employees by that agency’s deputy director, Tony Celebrezze.
As for the rumors that the indicted officials will seek a reduction in their charges in exchange for retiring from the Wildlife Division, it’s all news to Little.
And to Shelton, too.
“Their attorneys have not expressed that to me,” Little said.
Still, plea bargaining is always one of the cards available on the table, Little says.
“We always look for settlement in every case if something can be worked out, and this case would be no different,” she said.
And Shelton says also that such a deal lacks legs.
“That doesn’t make sense since all five can retire right now. I don’t see that happening,” Shelton said.
For now the entire episode remains within the purview of the courts, a situation that could take months to resolve.
A telephone request for a response to this matter was made to one of the defendants' attorneys but it was not returned.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn