Monday, June 15, 2015

Federal Judge tosses Brown County Five's $2 million suit against prosecutor

In a legal saga that seems endless a federal judge has – at least for the moment – closed the books on what’s often been called “The Brown County Five” incident.

Federal Judge Gregory L. Frost of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, issued on June 4th a 13-page summary judgment in favor of Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little.

That judgment was in response to a $2 million lawsuit brought against Little on January 28th, 2014 by five current and previous Ohio Division of Wildlife officials. These officials included former agency chief David Graham along with former agency assistant chief Randy Miller, Wildlife Division human resources manager Michelle Ward-Tackett, former agency law enforcement supervisor James Lehman, and Todd Haines, supervisor for the agency’s District Five (southwest Ohio) office.

Broken down, the suit included $1 million each for compensatory and punitive damages along with attorney fees.

The Brown County Five suit was prompted by Little bringing felony charges in 2010 against the crew for a matter related to Allan Wright, the former Wildlife Division officer assigned to Brown County.

It was an investigation led by the Ohio Inspector General in 2009 that eventually prompted Little to say the five then-defendants should have disciplined Wright more seriously than with just administrative punishment.

In 2006 Wright allowed an out-of-state fish and game officer to falsely use his address in order to obtain an Ohio resident hunting license.

But the legal case impacting the five Wildlife Division officials see-sawed back and forth through the court system until the Ohio State Supreme Court ruled May 29th, 2013 that the-then defendants were sheathed under the so-called Garrity Rule.

This point of law shields government workers against being required to testify against themselves in the course of an investigation; and in the case of the Brown County Five that investigation was conducted by the Ohio Inspector General.

As a result of the State Supreme Court ruling, Little had no other recourse but to dismiss the charges against the Brown County Five.

Also named as defendants in the Brown County Five’s lawsuit were the Ohio Inspector General as well as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

And in another twist to this convoluted matter, OIG deputy inspector general Ron Nichols - who was the lead bird dog in the Brown County Five case - was found to have violated state ethics rules on June 5th for accepting a job with the Natural Resources Department while actively engaged in investigations related to the department.

Once Nichols found that accepting the job was a violation of state ethics rules he did not assume his duties with the Natural Resources Department, however.

Also, the Columbus City prosecutor did not find that Nichols had compromised any of his investigations to secure either a job interview or employment with the Natural Resources Department.

Even so, Nichols has agreed not to seek a job with the Natural Resources Department for two years as well as take additional ethics law training.

In ruling for Little - who filed a motion for the lawsuit to be dismissed, -Judge Frost said the prosecutor simply was doing her job; that she did not “engage in the alleged misconduct and that, even if she did, her actions were within the scope of her duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution.”

“The Court concludes that Little is absolutely immune from liability for any of the alleged misconduct,” Judge Frost said in his ruling.

Even though the five current or former Wildlife Division officials can still seek judicial relief through the federal appellate court system, Little says she’s thrilled with Judge Frost’s ruling.

Little issued a statement regarding Judge Frost’s ruling stating she “… complied with all professional obligations relative to the plaintiffs.”

“Accordingly, she (Little) vigorously defended herself against their meritless claims,” the release said as well.

“I’m just glad it’s over so I can devote more time to the citizens of Brown County,” Little said in a follow-up conversation with this reporter.

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.


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