Two more Ohio Division of Wildlife officers have been indicted in Brown County Court of Common Pleas.
Indicted were Ohio Division of Wildlife field supervisor Dave Warner and Matthew Roberts, state wildlife officer assigned to Clinton County. Both men work out of the Wildlife Division’s District Five (southwest Ohio) office in Xenia.
According to the Ohio Inspector General's office:
"Brown County Prosecuting Attorney Jessica Little announced the Brown County Grand Jury indicted Roberts and Warner for Theft in Office (a 5th Degree Felony), and Tampering with Records (a Third Degree Felony). Warner was also indicted for Dereliction of Duty." (a Second Degree misdemeanor.)
A Third Degree Felony is punishable by a jail term of one to five years in jail, a maximum fine of $10,000, or both; A Fifth Degree Felony is punishable by a jail term of six to 12 months, a maximum fine of $2,500, or both; a Third Degree misdemeanor is punishable by a jail term of not more than 60 days, a maximum fine of $500, or both.
It was Little who in 2010 brought charges against five current or former Wildlife Division officers. Among them was Allan Wright who was sentenced Tuesday in federal court for violating the federal Lacey Act.
Little’s case against the other four Wildlife Division officials is now before the Ohio Supreme Court, which will decide on the merits of a technical point of law.
In response to the charges of the alleged illegal activity by the two Wildlife Division officers, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said: "Pursuant to the (Fraternal Order of Police) contract, Roberts will be placed on restricted duty, Warner will be on unpaid administrative leave."
Initiating the investigation was the Ohio Inspector General, the details of which are enfolded into a 15-page public document, dated July 19 and begun Feb. 1.
The report says the allegations against Wright, Warner, and Roberts are for “theft of (agency) time” as well as “Lack of supervision of employees or staff.”
Inside the Inspector General report is a photograph that was sent to the state’s investigative arm by a “complainant” that in 2008 showed Wright and Warner with three other individuals as well as Gene Price, an employee of Trophy Rock, a mineral block typically used as a deer-feeding supplement or deer attractant.
The photograph came from Trophy Rock’s web site, with the caption “Trophy Rock hosted Deer Camp 2.”
It had been confirmed that the photograph was taken at Wright’s residence when he lived in Brown County.
(Ed. note: This photo was still posted as of 1 p.m., Thursday, one of 311 images that had been viewed 808 times. It is found on page 17 under the "whitetail" harvest photo gallery.)
Requested by the Inspector General from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources were such documents and evidence as payroll records, radio logs, and harvest reports.
Handwritten deer harvest reports from Wright were also obtained, the Inspector General’s report says.
In inspecting the communications logs of Dec. 4, 2008, the Inspector General found that both Wright and Warner had reported they were “in service,” each before 8 a.m.
However, they did not report themselves as being “out of service” until 6:53 p.m. for Wright and 9:02 p.m. for Warner.
On that day, says the Inspector General’s report, Wright submitted a payroll claim for “eight hours of regular time on duty plus four hours of overtime...”
For Warner, says the Inspector General’s report, he had claimed “... eight hours of regular time on duty plus two hours of overtime.”
The Ohio Inspector General’s report goes on to say that during Ohio’s general firearms deer-hunting season, “wildlife officers are scheduled to work during daylight hunting hours.”
Even more, says the Inspector General’s report, the behavior of Wright and Warner pointed to something of a pattern as “Comparing the list of employees against the 2009 and 2010 harvest reports, additional instances were discovered in which Wright and Warner were hunting during their reported work hours.”
Roberts is first mentioned in the report by noting that on Dec. 3, 2009 he checked in deer killed by both Wright and Warner.
Further, says the report, Warner reported on duty at 4:35 a.m., and that “Roberts was working with him.”
Roberts then reported himself off duty at 5:46 p.m., the report says.
“However, ODNR payroll records show that Warner claimed eight hours regular time on duty this date.”
The document also states that Wright “admitted he hunted while on duty...” and had done so not just during the deer hunting season but also when he sought such other game as turkeys and squirrels.
In an effort to interview Roberts as well as Jason Keller - the state wildlife officer assigned to Lake County - the Ohio Inspector General was informed by the Fraternal Order of Police that neither man would be testifying. The FOP is the union that represents commissioned state wildlife officers.
Prior to his arrival to Lake County in January, 2011, Keller had been an at-large wildlife officer assigned to District Five. On Dec. 2, 2010, the Inspector General's report says, Roberts log indicated he reported for duty at 5:05 a.m. with Keller, and then off duty at 8:26 p.m.
The report says also that records "places Roberts' vehicle in Russellville, Ohio, from 5:48 a.m. to 5:34 p.m., near Wright's residence in Brown County."
Also, Warner similarly declined to be interviewed by the Ohio Inspector General.
The likely premise for these declines is the so-called “Garrity Rule,” a legal point that shields certain civil servants from being forced to appear before an agency like the Ohio Inspector General if that action could lead to self-incrimination.
“Accordingly, the Office of Ohio Inspector General finds reasonable cause to believe wrongful acts or omissions occurred in these instances.”
The Inspector General then makes several recommendations.
Among them are for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to “..review the actions of all employees involved to determine whether their conduct warrants further administrative action or training,” “Review the communications policy with all personnel to insure (sic) compliance,” and “Increase monitoring of on-duty ODNR Division of Wildlife enforcement officers to adequately ensure safety and accountability.”
The Natural Resources Department says that it moved quickly when it first received information about the matter.
"Upon receiving information that Mr. Warner and Mr. Roberts hunted while on duty, ODNR quickly investigated the matter and alerted the Ohio Inspector General’s office," said Bethany McCorkle, the Natural Resources Department's deputy chief of communications. "Based on the IG’s report, the Brown County Prosecutor obtained an indictment."
McCorkle said also that restricted duty means that Roberts can handle administrative duties only, but no law enforcement activities.
Likewise, "the department’s administrative investigation is ongoing," McCorkle said.
However, Troy Conley, a southwestern Ohio sportsman who has been closely tracking the various issues relating to the Wildlife Division's activities in that part of the state, disputes the Natural Resources Department's claim that the ODNR quickly investigated the matter.
In an email sent Thursday to Glen Cobb, the Natural Resources' Deputy Director and also the chief of its Division of Parks and Recreation, Conley said:
"I wish you would have taken my concern more seriously last year with the Photo I handed you (The one that looked as though Wright and Warner were getting paid to Deer hunt, photo attached) when we met at the Indian Creek Wildlife? Turning a blind eye is what's been going on with the Agency far too long. I feel VERY STRONGLY that's the reason why some of the officers think they are above the law or nobody would QUESTION anything they do?"
(Ed. note: Conley typically ends his sentences with a question mark.)
McCorkle responded to a forwarded copy of Conley's email by saying "The initial allegation was officers hunting while wearing state issued clothing. When we were notified that officers were hunting (while) on duty, ODNR quickly investigated the matter and alerted the Ohio Inspector General's office."
However, Conley said later in an interview that he approached Cobb with the photograph that appears on the Trophy Rock web site sometime within the first 10 days of May, 2011; or far earlier than when the Ohio Inspector General's report says the agency started its investigation.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn