Charges dismissed against Division of Wildlife leaders

Columbus — Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little plans to dismiss charges against five former and present Ohio Department of Natural Resources employees.

Little made her decision hours after the Ohio Supreme Court today (May 29) upheld a trial court judge's ruling that the employees' statements to a state watchdog investigator could not be used in their pending criminal cases.

"Without the statements, there is insufficient (evidence) to obtain a conviction," Little said of he decision to dismiss the felony charges.

In its 14-page unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed a ruling by the Court of Appeals for Brown County that found the employees' statements did not trigger the so-called "Garrity warning" given  in internal investigations in which they are advised such statements cannot be used to criminally prosecute the employee.

The Supreme Court found the five employees answered questions after receiving a warning that they could be fired for failing to do so.

"Statements extracted under these circumstances cannot be considered voluntary within the meaning of Garrity," the Supreme Court concluded. The court's opinion reinstates the judgment of Brown County Common Pleas Judge Scott Gusweiler to suppress statements made to the Ohio Inspector General's investigator.

"I am very happy with the decision," attorney John Woliver said of the Supreme Court's ruling. "The court understood the constitutional underpinnings of the case. It was a correct decision."  Woliver represents former Division of Wildlife deputy Chief Randy Miller.

In January, Woliver had argued to the Supreme Court statements made to an IG investigator in 2009-2010 by the employees were compelled under ODNR policies that required the employees to truthfully cooperate with the IG investigation or risk possibly being fired from their jobs.

Woliver said the five employees of the Ohio Division of Wildlife  were high-level officials. "They did not get to that position without knowing the consequences of refusal of cooperating with the (IG)  investigation, he said.

In addition to Miller, former Ohio Division of Wildlife Chief David Graham, former law enforcement program administrator James Lehman, Human Resources Manager Michele Ward-Tackett, and District 5 Manager Todd Haines face charges of obstruction of justice and complicity to obstruct justice. They have pleaded not guilty.

The five employees were indicted on charges related to their roles in an administrative hearing of former Brown County Wildlife Officer Allan Wright. Wright was investigated internally for allowing an out-of-state wildlife officer purchase a $19 resident hunting license rather than a $125 nonresident license.

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