Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Top Ohio wildlife officials indicted

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.

Vaughn reimbursed Ohio for the license fee difference, said Col.
Alvin Taylor, director of the South Carolina DNR law enforcement
division. 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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