After a three-year legal battle that began in a rural Ohio county court, the case that became widely known as the “Brown County Five” has reached the legal end of the road.
Along the way participants, jurists and spectators were treated to more legal detours and side trips than a badly programed auto GPS.
The road trip began when a little-known county prosecutor sunk her teeth into the backside of several top Ohio Division of Wildlife officials.
Among them were the agency's chief, assistant chief, law enforcement administrator, the agency's human resources administrator and the supervisor for the Wildlife Division's southwest Ohio.
All of whom saw their felony charges dropped several weeks ago after Ohio's Supreme Court eight justices ruled on a technicality. That being, comments made by the five to the Ohio Inspector General violated their so-called “Garrity Rule” rights, thus making such statements inadmissible at trial.
No statements, no case, was the net result, correctly concluded all of the attorneys.
And so Messieurs David Graham, Randy Miller, James Lehman, and Todd Haines, along with Mademoiselle Michelle Ward-Tackett, now can try to sort out how the heck they're going to pay for three years' worth of legal services on their respective retirement incomes.
It will be tough, for sure, and no doubt they'll still spend more than a few sleepless nights pondering their entire legal journey, their career and their legacy.
Meanwhile, Little can lick her wounds and assess what happened to a case many people said never came close to approaching the level of felony charges.
And so after more than three years working to contain my opinion in order to remain objective as I covered the case, I believe I've earned the right to express my opinion.
Consequently, I sincerely believe Little performed an invaluable service. Her doggedness helped open the shades to the shielded cronyism within the Wildlife Division, especially in southwest Ohio.
At the heart of the matter was a largely sweeping under the rug by officials of a festering problem. That is when Allan Wright, the state wildlife officer assigned to Brown County, strolled into the spotlight after it was revealed he had allowed a South Carolina wildlife officer to use his address in order to obtain a resident Ohio hunting license.
Being ever so mindful and careful here, that's when the snowball started its high-speed race downhill, bowling over the five agency officials in an avalanche of legal maneuvering by both sides.
These supervisors pretty much gave Wright an administrative "tsk-tsk-tsk."
The width, length and depth of anger on the part of many sportsmen and sportswomen regarding this gentle tap on Wright's behind cannot be understated.
Nearly all of the public I've listened too over the past three years (including some of whom do not hunt or fish) were deeply upset over how the wildlife officer was not aggressively disciplined.
They note (correctly) that had they been caught the Wildlife Division would have pounced.
Eventually Wright was convicted in federal court on a separate matter involving violations of the Lacey Act, in itself an issue that outraged sportsmen, though he managed to evade state charges because he too was covered by the Garrity Rule.
So was Little being a "dope" as some people have suggested?
No, her convictions and determination helped ensure that the rule of law is followed irrespective of status.
Yet it would be nice if I could say all is now honky-dory in Ohio Department of Natural Resources land.
Sadly, it is not.
I fear what has now happened is how the ODW has moved from a localized application of cronyism to a more institutionalized form of cronyism.
Such is best illustrated by the recent attempt by ODW chief Scott Zody to circumvent the usual vetting process of game law proposals while at the same time ignoring sound wildlife management principles by accepting (if you will) the cronyism of a few hot-headed legislators.
Just how entrenched is this festering issue and that of assumed entitlement is within the ODW and the parent Ohio Department of Natural Resources as a whole can be seen in other Ohio Inspector General investigations.
There were no fewer than 10 Ohio Inspector General investigations of ODNR employees from 2010 to 2013. Not all of them involved the Wildlife Division, either.
The latest OIG finding was released May 29 and involved an investigation into possible "wrongful conduct" (allegedly covering up stays at Punderson State Park Lodge in Geauga County) by ODNR/ Ohio State Park supervisor Eugene Shrum, for instance.
Another entry involved two ODNR/Ohio State Park rangers stationed at Cleveland Lakefront State Park for misconduct related to the release of a person named in a felony arrest warrant.
Even the ODNR's Division of Forestry has not escaped scrutiny. Another OIG investigation found how Forestry was so inept at disposing of what it considered “contaminated” materiel that the goods were fished out of a dumpster by agency personnel for personal use, by-passing the most basic record-keeping and disposal protocols.
In its defense, the ODNR properly says it has and will act on willful acts of violating department policy and also will continue to “refer all possible criminal violations by employees to the OIG.”
Problem is, such department policy slip-ups, alleged criminal activity and the like should never reach the front door of the OIG.
The first line of action must always remain at the threshold of the ODNR's and the governor's doorsteps.
However, it is clear how the current ODNR director and governor have left the department and its staff out to hang on the line.
The fact the OIG continues to display an active interest in the ODNR demonstrates to me how the director and the governor want credit for when things are humming along but are more than happy to say that the buck stops somewhere else.
It does not, not by a long shot.
So I salute Ms. Little, along with department critics like Troy Conley; all of whom continue to illuminate issues that ODNR officials would just as soon stay in the shadows.
Were they not to have spoken up, stood up, and weathered their own unfavorable criticism one can only speculate how much worse and how much longer the ODNR's cronyism and bumbling bureaucratic ineptness would have gone undetected.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn