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Wildlife officers unjustly accused of hunting on duty

Eighteen wildlife officers made headlines when a report released by the state’s inspector general led to some scalding accusations. The 20-page document stated the officers were hunting while on duty and a press release declaring their guilt was quickly released.
My law enforcement experience has taught me that press releases are best delayed until formal charges or indictments are made. This investigation had yet to be thoroughly vetted.
The officers were immediately suspended from performing enforcement duties and placed in other roles while the inquiry continued. Headlines soon followed the inspector’s press release:
• “18 Ohio Wildlife Officers Cited for Hunting Issues” “” Akron Beacon Journal.
• “18 Ohio Wildlife Officers Engaged in Wrongful Activity” “” WBLL and WPKO radio.
• “Ohio IG Cites 18 Wildlife Officers for Hunting” “” Toledo Blade.
The media reports multiplied while the Inspector General’s Office hunted for prosecuting attorneys willing to file charges. The lawyers balked and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources launched a probe into the allegations.
After a two-month furlough, all but one of those officers are now back to work.
Bethany McCorkle, an ODNR spokesperson, said that the state’s review uncovered evidence unavailable to the inspector.
Phone records, logs and individual accounts determined the officers, who all have home offices, weren’t on duty when they hunted.
Now, the inspector is calling foul, complaining that information was withheld. Some claim the inspector never asked for the information but relied upon time sheets and deer harvest records forms.
The officers were asked to be interviewed by the inspector and refused, but each was interviewed by an ODNR investigative body.
“These officers take great pride in their work, and we’re pleased to have them back on the job,” McCorkle said. “This was never about their integrity. It was a record-keeping issue.”
McCorkle said the inspector’s comparison of deer harvest and payroll records failed to tell the whole story.
She said the investigation considered officers on duty once they entered their vehicles, though their flexible schedules can include making checks from home in the mornings and attending meetings at night.
It’s tough to pound a square peg in a round hole and a wildlife officer’s job is like no other in state government. With only one officer per county, they receive calls at odd hours, and a change in weather can cause a change in plans, and starting and finishing times can be altered by a variety of work occurrences.
They attend court in the mornings, school programs in the afternoon, public meetings in the evening, and watch for back-road poachers at midnight. These officers are their own first, second and third shift.
The state has now implemented new record-keeping protocols, a positive step in documenting daily activities.
Officers are also required to submit a schedule that extends two months, making adjustments and schedule flexing more difficult, something likely to increase overtime costs and decrease availability.
ODNR must be issuing crystal balls, or maybe it’s an attempt to get that peg to fit.
Along the Way:
Five current and former Division of Wildlife employees are seeking more than $2 million in damages, claiming they faced unjustified criminal charges from a politically motivated investigation by a former Ohio inspector general.
Their lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus, stems from a probe of whether they properly handled and reported alleged misconduct by employees.
The suit claims that former Inspector General Thomas Charles and others conspired to target the employees in an attempt to discredit then-Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, as he ran for re-election.
It also alleges that Charles went prosecutor “shopping,” with charges filed by the Brown County prosecutor after the Franklin County prosecutor declined.
Step Outside:
• Feb. 21: Spaghetti dinner, sponsored by the Hancock County Conservation League, 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m., Knights of Columbus Hall, 701 W. Main Cross St, Findlay.
• March 1: Tri-County NRA dinner and auction, Hancock County Humane Society. For information: 419-701-7515.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard, OH 45867-0413 or via email at jimsfieldnotes@aol.com.

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