By Julie Carr Smyth
AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS: Sixteen of 18 wildlife officers a watchdog said illegally hunted while on duty have been cleared by the state and were returned to their jobs on Tuesday.
The officers have their guns, trucks and law enforcement powers back after being on administrative assignments since December as an internal review was conducted, Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle said.
One officer, in Highland County, has been referred for further disciplinary review, McCorkle said. Another officer, in Columbiana County, has retired.
McCorkle said the state review uncovered new evidence unavailable to Inspector General Randall Meyer. She said phone records, logs and individual accounts determined the officers, who all have home offices, weren’t on duty when they hunted.
“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.”
Meyer had requested to interview the officers, which they declined.
Meyer had found in comparing deer harvest and payroll records that the officers had hunted while on duty or were off duty at the time their deer harvests were recorded and therefore falsified payroll records to collect pay for hours not worked.
The inspector general’s report, issued in December, said “lack of accountability and supervision along with failure of wildlife officers’ compliance with the communication policy” was not only a legal issue but a safety concern.
Meyer launched the probe after an earlier investigation resulted in the convictions of two Brown County officers. He said he suspected it was more than an isolated incident.
McCorkle said Meyer’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 they have “very flexible schedules” that can include making checks from home in the mornings and attending public meetings at night.
The state has put new record-keeping protocols and officer education requirements in place to prevent similar problems in the future, she said.
The department’s 140-member Wildlife Division has at least one wildlife officer in each of the state’s 88 counties. Officers returned to work Tuesday in Adams, Belmont, Butler, Champaign, Columbiana, Defiance, Fayette, Franklin, Gallia, Geauga, Hocking, Holmes, Mercer, Sandusky, Stark, Vinton and Wyandot counties.
According to Meyer’s findings, the Highland County officer harvested deer while on state time on two dates in late 2009. On a third date in January 2011 he harvested a deer on state time or his work hours were reported improperly, the watchdog reported.