With the last paragraph to the last chapter of the so-called “Brown County Five” matter being written, the eight-year-old book is about to be closed.
A federal judge in Cincinnati has dismissed most of the civil claims the five current or former Ohio Division of Wildlife officials filed against Brown County (Ohio) prosecutor Jessica A. Little and several other officials.
The Brown County Five include now-retired Randy L. Miller, David M. Graham and James E. Lehman. Graham was chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife during the opening days of the matter and until he was fired.
Rounding out the group are Todd E. Haines and Michele E. Ward-Tackett. Both Haines and Ward-Tackett continued to work for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources during much of the period and ultimately returned to their former posts after charges against them eventually were dropped.
When the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Brown County Five that their Garrity Rights against self-incrimination during an administrative investigation were violated, the group filed civil suits against a laundry list of officials, including Little.
Besides Little, others named in the civil suits were the Ohio Inspector General Office, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, former ODNR Anthony J. Celebreeze III, former ODNR Director Sean D. Logan, current ODNR Director James Zehringer, Ohio Inspector General Randell Meyer, Deputy Ohio Inspector General Ronaald E. Nichols, and former Ohio Inspector General Thomas Charles.
Each of the five plaintiffs sought $200,000 in judgment plus another $200,000 per plaintiff “for punitive damages, plus interest, costs, attorney fees and all further relief to which (the) Plaintiffs are entitled.”
However, Little’s attorney filed a motion in federal court to discharge most of the civil claims, which the federal judge agreed to, Little said.
And the remaining claims against Little and the Ohio Inspector General are also likely to be discharged in federal court. That dismissal is expected to be consummated once Little’s attorney has the opportunity to present the kind of detailed evidence that was not allowed in the other civil suit complaints, Little said today.
The remaining two claims involve “manufacturing evidence” and “conspiracy to manufacture evidence.”
“Now we can prove their claims have no truth as to the facts,” Little said. “It really wasn’t a difficult decision for the (federal) judge to arrive at.”
Perhaps not but the road to this point was still a very long one.
In 2010 the Ohio Inspector General launched an investigation into the conduct of the-then Wildlife Division officer assigned to Brown County, Allen D. Wright.
It was learned that on Nov. 6, 2006, Wright had allowed an out-of-state wildlife officer to use his (Wright’s) home address in order to obtain a resident Ohio hunting license. Such infractions are frowned on to the point where it is a violation of Ohio hunting laws.
As a result of its investigation the Ohio Inspector General concluded that the Brown County Five had failed to take appropriate disciplinary – or, criminal - action against Wright.
Instead, Wright was punished under much-less severe administrative rules that were eventually rescinded as well.
Thus the Brown County Five became vulnerable to criminal charges of their own for their alleged misconduct.
From that point the court system pretty much took over. After being kicked around in the local court and then climbing to the appellate court, each side could claim at least one victory.
However, the Ohio State Supreme Court came down convincingly that the Brown County Five were denied their right against self-incrimination. Consequently, the charges against them were dropped.
All of which set the stage for the five to file civil charges against the officials they believed had harmed them; included in the latter, Brown County prosecutor Little.
And now one – likely – footnote to a case that attracted a huge following and intense interest from not only state wildlife officials but Ohio’s outdoors community as well.
“I’m still surprised at the level of public interest in this case; it really didn’t occur to me it would generate this much attention,” said Little.
Asked if she would have done things differently, Little responded with a qualified “no.”
If anything, Little said, she would have been more careful in requesting information and not “so reliant on a source to provide me with what I need.”
“I didn’t know what was out there and I should have been more careful,” she said.
Even so, Little said the process was worth the effort of digging in her heels and going the full distance, all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court.
“When the public trust is at stake there must be someone there; looking,” Little said.
Yet in spite of the layer upon layer of legal wrangling and the years of filing charges, civil claims and such, Little also says she has not soured on working with the Ohio Division of Wildlife nor its commissioned officers.
After all, Little says, she is still Brown County’s prosecutor and as such must work hand-in-glove with the Wildlife Division and its officers.
“We take their cases and I believe we work splendidly together,” Little said. “I do not see any continuing issues that will disrupt that professional relationship.”
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Jeff is the retired News-Herald reporter who covered the earth sciences, the area's three county park systems and the outdoors for the newspaper. During his 30 years with The News-Herald Jeff was the recipient of more than 100 state, regional and national journalism awards. He also is a columnist and features writer for the Ohio Outdoor News, which is published every other week and details the outdoors happenings in the state.