GEORGETOWN Six Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife employees are facing felony charges related to the alleged falsification of an address on a hunting permit.
Brown County Wildlife Officer Allan Wright is accused of allowing South Carolina resident Eric Vaughn to use Wright's home address on an application for a hunting permit in November of 2006. According to the State of Ohio Office of the Inspector General, records indicate that Vaughn paid $19 for a residential hunting permit, rather than the $125 fee that out-of-state hunters are typically required to pay.
Additionally, the Office of the Inspector General found that Wright personally checked in three deer killed by Vaughn and allegedly recorded his own home address on the tags.
Wright has served as an officer with the Division off Wildlife since May 17, 1993, according to an ODNR spokesperson.
During investigations by multiple agencies into the incident, Wright allegedly admitted to investigators that he suggested substituting his own address to Vaughn and assisted with obtaining the license, although he claimed that it has been common practice in Ohio to allow Wildlife Officers from other states to hunt with residential licenses, according to a report released by the OIG.
Vaughn was a Wildlife Officer in South Carolina and a resident of that state at the time the license was issued.
Last week Wright was indicted for two counts of tampering with records and one count of falsification. The record tampering charge is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, and the falsification count is a misdemeanor carrying a maximum sentence of six months in the Brown County Detention Center, according to Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little.
In addition to Wright, five other ODNR Division of Wildlife employees - all in supervisory positions - have each been charged with two fifth-degree felony counts because they allegedly failed to initiate a criminal investigation once allegations against Wright became known to the Division. Division of Wildlife Chief David Graham, Assistant Chief Randy Miller, Law Enforcement Administrator James Lehman, District 5 Manager Todd Haines and Human Resources Administrator Michele Ward-Tackett have each been indicted on charges of obstruction of justice and complicity to obstructing justice. Each defendant could face a maximum of 12 months in prison in addition to fines on each count.
All six defendants were summoned to appear for arraignment Monday in Brown County Court of Common Pleas, and each defendant was released on a $10,000 own-recognizance bond after the hearing.
All six individuals were still on the job as of Monday, according to a spokesperson for the Division of Wildlife. Mike Shelton, Chief of the ODNR Office of External Affairs, said the Department is working in cooperation with the Office of the Inspector General to determine if further training or personnel changes will be necessary, but no decisions have been finalized concerning the employees.
It is Shelton's understanding that a felony conviction would lead to termination of employment for the defendants.
The OIG launched an investigation into the allegations in September of 2009 after receiving a complaint from a confidential informant. During the course of the inquiry, investigators with the Inspector General's office discovered that the Division of Wildlife had already conducted an internal investigation of the complaint in 2008.
After the 2008 investigation, the Division of Wildlife administrators concluded that Wright's actions constituted a "failure of good behavior" violation of the Division's administrative policy. Wright was issued a verbal reprimand but no criminal charges were filed.
"Wildlife administrators said that they never recognized or considered Wright's actions could be criminal, and decided to handle the matter as a policy violation," the OIG's report states.
The Inspector General's report indicates Wright's assertions that allowing out-of-state Wildlife Officers to purchase in-state licenses was considered, but never verified by the administrators who conducted the Department of Wildlife investigation. The lack of verification and the administrators' failure to pursue criminal charges, including forwarding the complaint to appropriate supervisors as required by policies established by ODNR and Governor Ted Strickland, led to the charges against the administrators.
"We determined in this case that Wildlife Administrators ignored the criminal violation of falsification and decided to handle the violation with an administrative investigation," said OIG investigators in the report. "The investigation was incomplete because the claim that it was common practice to aid nonresidents in obtaining resident hunting licenses, and it was done with supervisor approval or knowledge, was not verified."
"We find Wildlife Officer Wright committed an act of wrongdoing. We also find that Wildlife administrators committed wrongful acts or omissions by failing to properly investigate Officer Wright. Wildlife decided to handle the matter as a policy violation, rather than a potential criminal violation."
The OIG did find, however, that Graham issued a memo on March 14, 2008, prohibiting Wildlife personnel from accepting out-of-state hunting licenses. Graham issued another memo on Oct. 1, 2008 prohibiting the issuance of in-state licenses to out-of-state residents.
Although Wright allegedly told investigators that "it has been common practice that in the southwest part of Ohio, officers from Kentucky and Indiana would hunt in Ohio using resident Ohio Licenses," OIG was unable to find evidence that such a policy existed.
OIG's investigators searched all records of hunting licenses listing a Wildlife Officer's home address during 2006 and concluded that "Eric Vaughn had the only record that did not have the same family name of the residence, and that had a previous or subsequent out-of-state address."
The report continues: "The results of this query demonstrate that other Wildlife officers are not making a common practice of allowing nonresidents to use officers' addresses to obtain a resident hunting license."
Additionally, Wright allegedly made several statements to investigators indicating that the courtesy was reserved only for wildlife officers. However, an ODNR Purchase History query of Wright's home address revealed that Michigan resident John D. Coffin had obtained an Ohio hunting license using Wright's address in 2001. The OIG investigators found that Coffin is an acquaintance of Wright, but is not a Wildlife Officer.
Furthermore, even if such a policy existed, the OIG investigators found that such a policy would not excuse the deliberate falsification of information on a hunting license application.
Hunting licenses are required of anyone who hunts or traps legal game in Ohio. Although hunting license applicants are not required to show proof of identification or residency, and although the information provided by applicants is not routinely verified, "the application form clearly states that providing fraudulent information is a violation of 2921.13 of the Ohio Revised Code,'" according to the OIG's report.
"Regardless, whether a policy existed at the time or not, Wright's actions constituted criminal activity, and Wildlife should have investigated it as a criminal matter," the OIG's report states.
License and permit fees are the main source of funding for the Division of Wildlife, which does not directly receive taxpayer or General Revenue funds.
During interviews with Graham, Miller, Lehman, Haines and Ward-Tackett, each individual allegedly admitted to investigators that Wildlife would pursue criminal charges against any civilian who obtained or attempted to obtain a hunting license using fraudulent information.
According to Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little, "regular people are prosecuted routinely for the exact same offense."
"Just because you are a law enforcement officer does not make you special," she said.
Little noted that her office does not currently intend to pursue charges related to the 2001 issuance of a resident license to Michigan resident John D. Coffin, in part because statute of limitations restrictions may apply.
As part of the investigation, the OIG also looked into allegations that the Division of Wildlife administrators instructed officers not to assist or cooperate with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation. The OIG found those allegations were not substantiated.
Following its inquiry, the Office of the Inspector General forwarded recommendations to ODNR suggesting updates to the department's Suspected Illegal Activities Policy to Mirror the Governor's Procedures for Notification of Employee Wrongdoing and/or Suspected Illegal Activity, specifically suggesting that ODNR policy should require all suspected illegal activity be reported immediately to the Director or Chief Legal Council of ODNR.
The Inspector General's Office additionally recommended ODNR internally review the actions of all employees involved to determined whether their conduct warrants further administrative action or training.
The defendants are scheduled to appear in Brown County Court of Common Pleas on April 21.
The Office of the Inspector General's report is available online at watchdog.ohio.gov.