Top Ohio wildlife officials indicted
By Frank Hinchey
Monday, April 12, 2010 1:31 PM CDT
Georgetown, Ohio The chief of the DNR Division of Wildlife, an assistant chief and four other DOW officials were placed on paid administrative leave after being indicted on felony charges.
Five employees are accused of failure to pursue a criminal investigation of a wildlife officer charged with assisting a South Carolina wildlife officer to purchase a $19 Ohio resident hunting license instead of a $125 out-of-state license.
Indictments of obstruction of justice and complicity to obstruction of justice were returned April 2 in Brown County against DOW Chief David Graham, Assistant Chief Randy Miller, Law Enforcement Administrator James Lehman, Human Resources Administrator Michele Ward-Tackett, and District 5 Manager Todd Haines. The charges carry a maximum penalty of up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Wildlife Officer Allan Wright was charged with three felony counts of tampering with records and a misdemeanor count of falsification. The felony counts carry a maximum penalty of up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine.
Wright admitted to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigator he allowed a South Carolina wildlife officer to use Wright's home address in 2006 on a Ohio resident hunting application. Providing fraudulent information on a hunting application is a first-degree misdemeanor. Wright later admitted to a DOW investigator he checked three deer killed by Eric Vaughn in Ohio and recorded his own Ohio address and badge number on the harvest reports.
All six employees of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources pleaded not guilty to the charges April 5 in Brown County Common Pleas Court. The were placed on paid leave two days later, said Mark Shelton, ODNR chief of external services.
"The public service provided by Division of Wildlife and Ohio Department of Natural Resources are not going to suffer while these personnel investigations go forward," Shelton said. A felony conviction prohibits a person from state employment and loss of a state pension, Shelton said.
Graham, addressing the Ohio Wildlife Council in early April, echoed that sentiment, calling these "extraordinary circumstances."
"I want to assure Wildlife Council that the Division staff is strong and capable and has the support of the director,"?he said.
DOW Assistant Chief Jim Marshall will serve as acting director while the court cases are pending, Shelton said.
"It smells bad the farther up you go," Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little said. "If you see a crime you should report it."
The governor's office and watchdog unit should be commended for its four-month investigation, Little said.
The 17-page Inspector General's investigative report found Wright admitted his role in obtaining an Ohio resident hunting license for a friend, Vaughn. The IG concluded "DOW administrators failed to investigate the deception as a criminal matter."
Wright claimed the practice of granting resident hunting licenses to out-of-state-wildlife officers was a common courtesy acknowledged by DOW officials, according to the IG report. IG investigators have since found no evidence the DOW officials attempted to verify if such a practice existed during an administrative and disciplinary investigation of Wright in 2008.
Graham, Miller, Ward-Tackett and Haines told the IG they did not regard Wright's actions as criminal because the practice of obtaining Ohio hunting licenses for out-of-state wildlife officers was a common practice and supervisors had knowledge or approved the practice. They also acknowledged to the IG if a civilian provided fraudulent information on a hunting license, criminal charges would be pursued against the individual.
In 1996, the Ohio DOW granted several requests for complimentary hunting and fishing licenses to West Virginia and Kentucky wildlife employees and, in turn, the West Virginia Department of Fish and Wildlife Services granted requests for complimentary hunting and fishing licenses from the Ohio DOW, according to documents obtained by Ohio Outdoor News.
IG investigators for the state watchdog checked all 308,592 Ohio hunting licenses issued in 2006 and compared addresses to Ohio's 155 wildlife officers.
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 OIG report stated. "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."
The IG found that Wright also used his own address to assist an acquaintance, John Coffin of Michigan, obtain an Ohio hunting license in 2001.
Because Coffin is not a wildlife officer, this conflicted with Wright's assertion to investigators that granting resident licenses to out-of-state wildlife officers, especially Indiana and Kentucky, was common DOW courtesy, the IG report stated.
[color="#996600"]Vaughn reimbursed Ohio for the license fee difference, said Col. Alvin Taylor, director of the South Carolina DNR law enforcement division.
[/color]Taylor described Vaughn as a good officer who was not aware he had done anything wrong while hunting in Ohio.
The South Carolina DNR investigated Wright in 2007 for alleged trapping violations in South Carolina and issued Wright a warning letter for failure to comply with administrative reporting procedures, Taylor said. In addition, a federal wildlife investigator interviewed Wright on a complaint about alleged misconduct by an FWS officer.
During the South Carolina investigation, Wright admitted to the federal investigator he helped Vaughn obtain an Ohio resident hunting license in 2006. The federal investigator's findings were sent to the Ohio DOW, which investigated in 2008 and found no criminal wrongdoing.
Tackett agreed to classify Wright's actions as "failure of good behavior" requiring a verbal reprimand, the IG report stated. Graham agreed with the recommendation, and Miller felt Wright's action was not dishonest because Wright "didn't willfully set out to do that," according to the IG report.
"It is unclear how Wildlife could proceed with an administrative investigation and discipline if, at the time of the offense, there was no policy prohibiting Wright from taking part in providing a resident license to a nonresident," the IG report concluded.
In March 2008, Graham issued a memo requiring Ohio DOW employees to purchase out-of-state license when hunting outside the Buckeye state.
"Any person purchasing a resident license will be held personally and professionally responsible for their actions," Graham wrote in the memo.
Graham issued a second memo seven months later that out-of-state wildlife employees hunting and fishing in Ohio "must follow the same guidelines, rules and regulations as any other out-of-state patrons."
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