Columbus — The Ohio Supreme Court will review a lower court’s decision reinstating statements made by the five current or former DNR Division of Wildlife employees to a state watchdog agency investigating possible wrongdoing by a wildlife officer.
Lawyers for former wildlife division chief David Graham, former deputy chief Randy Miller, former law enforcement program administrator James Lehman, Human Resources Manager Michele Ward-Tackett, and District 5 Manager Todd
Haines filed an appeal Feb. 27 with the Supreme Court in Columbus. The court ruled in May to hear the case.
“This case involves matters of great public and general interest and presents a substantial constitutional question,” wrote attorney John Woliver on the scope of self-incrimination protections for public employees facing investigations by the Ohio Inspector General, a state watchdog agency.
At issue, lawyers argued, is a U.S. Supreme Court decision commonly called the “Garrity warning,” given to public employees in internal investigations in which they are advised such statements cannot be used to criminally prosecute said employee.
Because the OIG investigator did not give such warnings before interviewing the five employees, “the question arises as to what extent can a state agency or law enforcement officials insulate themselves from Garrity by utilizing another agency to conduct the investigation,” Woliver wrote in court papers.
The five employees were aware of a duty to cooperate with the OIG “or lose their jobs” when they gave statements to the OIG investigator, Woliver claimed in court papers.
In its recent ruling, the appeals court for Brown County concluded the employees’ duty to cooperate truthfully, “whether from a statute, policy, or contract, does not alone create a need to immunize statements from later use in a criminal proceeding.”
As a result, the five employees interviewed by the OIG investigator were indicted by a Brown County grand jury on felony charges involving their roles in an administrative hearing of former Brown County Wildlife Officer Allan Wright.
Wright is awaiting sentencing on federal wildlife charges on July 17 in federal court in Cincinnati.
The Ohio Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether Garrity protection of public employees exists when they must cooperate with an OIG investigation or face loss of employment by refusing to give complete statements to the OIG investigator.
The five defendants each face felony charges of obstruction of justice and complicity to obstruct justice. They have pleaded not guilty.