Thursday, August 18, 2011

UPDATED Brown County prosecutor, Natural Resources officials comment on Wright's indictment

The Brown County prosecutor handling the case against the five still-indicted Ohio Division of Wildlife officials looked to the press release issued by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources as her response to the federal government’s four-count indictment against Allan Wright, 45, the former wildlife officer assigned to Brown County and later, an at-large wildlife officer.

Jessica A. Little is prosecuting three current and two retired Wildlife Division officials for the manner in which they handled Wright’s conduct when he allowed a South Carolina wildlife officer to use his address in order to obtain an Ohio resident hunting license.

The five indicted officials handled the matter as an administrative one and not as part of a criminal matter.

This case was reviewed by Brown County Common Pleas Court Judge Scott Gusweiler who issued a ruling in favor of the defense. It regarded a particular point of law as to testimonial vulnerability of state government employees.

That ruling was appealed by Little before the 12th District Court of Appeals in southwest Ohio. The court has not yet to issued its findings though the matter is expected to be appealed before the state supreme court by either the defense or the prosecution.

As for Wright, he was indicted Tuesday in federal court for allegedly trafficking in and making false records for illegally harvested white-tailed deer in violation of the Lacy Act, which is federal law.

Wright was placed on immediate unpaid administrative leave and required to return all state property in his possession, which was performed today, Thursday.

Asked about Wright’s federal indictment, Little noted that her response was the indictment charges themselves.

As for her hiring an independent investigator, David Kelly, who is now also the Adams County prosecutor, that issue’s status remains the same, Little says.

Kelly was appointed due to Little’s claim that the five officials were not immune from what’s called “the Garity Rule” that applies to a government worker’s testimony while it shielded Wright.

“I don’t know the status of the special prosecutor’s investigation and I’ve stayed away from it: I’ve been very hands off,” Little said.

But Little said the new federal charges brought against Wright do not impact the case against the five other Wildlife Division officials.

And in a 30-minute teleconference with reporters, officials with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources expounded and expanded on the agency’s officially stated response to its actions related to Wright.

Wright - who has 21 1/2 years with the agency - was placed on unpaid administrative leave rather than placed on paid administrative leave “largely because of the gravity of the matter,” said Bill Damschroder, the Natural Resources Department’s Chief Legal Counsel.

He will lose his current salary of $54,225.

“This administration thought it was the correct thing,” Damschroder said.
Damschroder said also that he “hesitates to speak respective of any administration other than this one,” and added that the new ODNR team has been “cooperative and helpful to assist in bringing every case to a conclusion with clarity.”

Asked why Wright was earlier this year moved from being the wildlife officer assigned to Brown County to an at-large agent with district-wide responsibilities, the Natural Resources Department said that its decision was in part so he could better help his family cope with the situation.

“That weighed heavily,” said David Lane, Wildlife Division chief.

Also queried as to whether any other Wildlife Division official is being investigated at either the state or federal level, Natural Resources officials said they were not aware of any others.

As for procedures to address future, similar cases, those are being reviewed now by the Natural Resources Department, says Glen Cobb, the agency’s Deputy Director.

“We are always looking for ways to improve, and we’re not going to turn a blind eye,” Cobb said. “We’re going to look at any and all things related to evidence and we have to have a certain amount of trust but (also) see where we need to tighten. We have a fiduciary responsibility to the sportsmen and others of the state.”

Then asked if the Natural Resources Department either ignored or looked away from the incident and its related fall-out, Damschroder said “in respect to the matter, given the nature of the charges we felt it was appropriate for others to do this investigation.”

Wyn Hornbuckle, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said he had no further comment beyond what is contained in his agency’s press release which is a nearly mirror image of the Natural Resources Department’s release.

Additional information is expected and this blog will be updated as that data becomes available.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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