Five former Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) employees filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday against Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little and Former Inspector General Tom Charles. The lawsuit stems from an IG investigation initiated by Charles, and charges brought by Little, both of which were politically motivated and eventually dismissed.
The story starts back in 2006 with wildlife officer Allan Wright helping his friend, a wildlife office from another state, get an in-state Ohio hunting license. In the past, this type of reciprocity was common and encouraged. The officer had asked, and received permission from his supervisor prior to assisting his friend. The total savings for the out-of-state officer was around $100.00.
After receiving a complaint about the action, ODNR conducted an investigation in 2008, and dealt with the issue administratively, giving Wright a verbal reprimand.
But in September 2009, then-IG Tom Charles, anxiously looking for some dirt with which he could discredit the Strickland Administration, opened his own investigation into the Wright incident.
Charles and his investigators conducted a series of interviews with ODNR employees Randy Miller, James Lehman, Michele Ward-Tackett, David Graham and Todd Haines, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Charles. According to court documents, the interviewees were berated by the lead investigator, Ronald Nichols. The interviewees were not informed of their right to have an attorney present and they were asked “scripted interview questions designed to incriminate” them while facing “malicious cross-examination”.
Charles’s final report concluded the five ODNR employees had improperly failed to report the incident with Wright, even though an internal investigation had already been conducted at ODNR and Wright has already been disciplined. Charles held back public release of the report while he shopped around for a prosecutor who would take the case.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a Republican, refused to take the case “for lack of any evidence” supporting the charges. But Charles found a taker in Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little, also a Republican and a former legal partner of State Rep. Danny Bubp. (fun fact: Bubp would later be asked to head up ODNR under Kasich)
Little was successful in getting an indictment, exactly what Charles was hoping for in his attempts to “disparage the Strickland Administration”, in part by not revealing to the Grand Jury that an ODNR investigation had already been completed. The ODNR employees voluntarily turned themselves in to the Brown County Sheriff where they were searched, fingerprinted and photographed.
A second ODNR investigation into the incident completely “exonerated the defendants”, and the Brown County case against the ODNR employees was ultimately dismissed in 2013 after a decision by the Ohio Supreme Court upholding an earlier decision suppressing statements made during the IG investigation.
And yet, the employees ended up facing administrative leave and suspension. Most were denied the right to vote in the 2011 election. And ultimately, one was fired, two were forced to resign, and two others were forced to take jobs with reduced responsibilities. All requested legal help from Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine and were refused.
For his loyalty and hard work in ruining the careers of five state employees for political gain, John Kasich appointed Tom Charles as Director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety.
Court documents show that the plaintiffs are asking for a minimum of $200,000 each, plus interest and attorney fees. Current Inspector General Randy Meyer is also named in the complaint.
You can download and read the full complaint document here.