Monday, July 23, 2012

Who knew what and when is at heart of ODNR investigative claims

Who knew what and when is one of the disputed points being argued as to the time line for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ investigation into the alleged illegal activity by two state wildlife officers assigned to southwest Ohio.

On Thursday Ohio Division of Wildlife officers Matthew Roberts and Dave Warner were indicted in Brown County Court of Common Pleas 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.

The charges stem from the pair’s alleged activity of hunting while on duty, and also for allegedly turning in bogus time slips that supposedly showed they were on duty when they were allegedly hunting.

Where another twist comes into play is when the Natural Resources Department first learned of possible wrong-doing and when it says it launched its own investigation before turning the matter over to the Ohio Inspector General.

The Natural Resources Department says it began to look into the matter “When we were notified that officers were hunting on duty.”

At that point the “ODNR quickly investigated the matter and alerted the Ohio Inspector General’s office,” stating the “initial allegation was officers were hunting while wearing state issued clothing.”

“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.

However, strongly disputing the Natural Resources Department’s contentions is Troy Conley, a long-time critic of the Natural Resources Department’s Division of Wildlife activities in southwest Ohio.

Conley says he first alerted Glen Cobb, the Natural Resources Department’s deputy director, in May, 2011 about the possibility of illegal activity by the two Wildlife officers.

To do this Conley provided as evidence a copy of a photograph that appeared on the Trophy Rock web site. This photograph of the two officers shows them presumably wearing agency clothing while on a hunt.

Trophy Rock is a mineral block that is used as a mineral supplement for deer and as an attracting agent for the animals.

For his part, Conley says that Cobb was dismissive of his concerns, with the Natural Resources Department official indicating that perhaps the officers had bought the clothing with their own money.

But Conley’s recollection also matches that of at least two other witnesses.

And Conley’s position that it was he - and not the Natural Resources Department - that first approached the Ohio Inspector General about possible wrong-doing on the part of the two officers is more or less corroborated by the state’s independent investigative arm.

“Bill Hoover also was there when I handed Cobb the photo, both of them know what was said, as well,” Conley says in an email exchange. “I was clear about the question as to ‘Hunting on the Clock.’”

Conley further says that “My concern was never about them wearing uniform pants off-duty while hunting.”

“I could care less what they wear as long as hunter orange was part of it,” Conley said. “My concern, as I stated to Glenn Cobb in front of three other people from here in the area that attended the meeting, was hunting while on duty. If I remember right, I think my words to Glenn Cobb was ‘it looked like they were hunting on my dime.’”

Also, says Conley, he followed up on Dec. 22, 2011 with his concerns, notifying Wildlife Division chief Scott Zody.

“I think if you look at the IG’s report I think it started in February only after I sent the picture to them,” Conley says. “DOW had done nothing with it, the date that I handed the picture to Glenn Cobb was between May 1st and May 10th at the Indian Creek Wildlife Area here in Brown County.”

Backing up Conley is Hoover, who says that the latter did, indeed, express concern that the two officers may have committed the actions that led to their indictments.

“At this meeting, Mr. Conley presented a picture of (the) wildlife officers with their trophy deer kills,” Hoover says.  “The officers are in uniform. Mr. Conley’s concern was that the officers were hunting while on the clock.
“Mr. Cobb stated that the officers may have purchased the uniforms on their own. This seems highly unlikely for an individual to use uniform clothing in preference traditional camo deer hunting clothing.”

Likewise saying that it was Conley - and not the Natural Resources Department - that made first contact is the Ohio Inspector General’s office.

In an email to The News-Herald, Ohio Inspector General spokesman Carl A. Enslen, wrote:

“The genesis of the investigation leading to the July 19, 2012 report of investigation of Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife Officers Matthew Roberts, David Warner, and Allan Wright began after Troy Conley sent the Office of the Ohio Inspector General the Trophy Rock photograph of Warner and Wright as an attachment to an email February 1, 2012.

“On the same day, our office contacted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to request a list of documents as a preliminary inquiry on the matter.

“On February 24, 2012, our office then provided a letter to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources asking for the same documents in writing.

“It appears our office initiated the investigation because of the questions raised as a result of the photograph rather than the Ohio Department of Natural Resources contacting the Office of the Ohio Inspector General with a request to investigate the matter.”

That being said, Enslen did add that it was his guess “...that this is most likely just a mix-up or misunderstanding of the exact time line, which from another view might make it look as if there was request from someone at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.”

“This is easy to have happen when an individual is attempting to gather all the facts from several people at a large agency and do it in a very short span of time in order to accurately respond to a number of journalists,” Enslen said.

Then asked if the Natural Resources Department would like to change its stance that it was this agency - and not the Ohio Inspector General - that launched the investigation, McCorkle said:

“Investigations may have been going on simultaneously. When we investigated and found sufficient information we alerted the Ohio Inspector General’s office.”

None of which mollifies Conley or two other witnesses who dispute the Natural Resources’ claims.

Sadly, ODNR/Division of Wildlife has lost the confidence of the people it was established to serve,” says Fred Schmaltz, another southwest Ohio sportsman who, like Hoover, backs up Conley’s claims.

“The sportsmen of Ohio, the people of Ohio deserve better. ODNR/Division of Wildlife has to clean house and install new leadership from outside the organization.”

“Only outside candidates who are independent of the current system should be considered to replace the current regime.

“This is clearly the best chance of changing the corrupt culture that presently permeates the organization.

“With new leadership from outside, maybe once again the sportsmen of Ohio and the citizens of Ohio can trust and be proud of OUR DIVISION of WILDLIFE.”

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twitter: @Fieldkorn

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