Andrew Welsh-Huggins
AP Legal Affairs Writer

COLUMBUS: Statements made by five state wildlife officials during an internal investigation can’t be used against them in a criminal case, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The unanimous decision likely ends a 2010 prosecution of the five Ohio Division of Wildlife employees, because a prosecutor was on record saying the statements were a chief piece of evidence.

At issue were answers the employees provided during an Inspector General investigation into allegations that another Wildlife employee had illegally provided an out-of-state colleague with an Ohio hunting license at a discount.

The U.S. Supreme Court previously determined that statements by public employees during internal investigations typically can’t be used in criminal cases if the employees spoke as a condition of keeping their jobs, Justice Judith French said in the state Supreme Court’s decision.

That ruling clearly applies in this case, since the employees spoke to an Inspector General investigator after being warned by the Natural Resources department that “their failure to do so would subject them to disciplinary action up to and including termination,” French said.

The court rejected the Brown County prosecutor’s characterization of the Inspector General as a “toothless agency” with little or no powers over state employees.

The agency has broad powers to investigate wrongdoing and while it cannot directly discipline state employees, it can refer its findings to state agencies for possible discipline, French wrote.

Brown County prosecutor Jessica Little did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Attorneys for the employees, some of them still working for the Wildlife division, praised the court’s decision.

“They did not deserve to be subjected to criminal prosecution,” said John Woliver, representing employee Randy Miller, who has since retired. “They exemplify the type of public servants Ohio is fortunate to have.”

The ruling should end the prosecution, said attorney Michael Dobyns, who represents Todd Haines, who remains with Natural Resources.

“The only evidence she had was that which was obtained by the Inspector General,” Dobyns said. “If the statements are now suppressed, I don’t believe there’s any other evidence she can move forward on.”

The Inspector General’s probe looked into the state’s internal investigation of the allegation over the hunting license discount.

In that case, former Wildlife officer Allan Wright was convicted last year in federal court of helping a South Carolina hunter illegally obtain an Ohio deer license at a discount that saved him about $105.

Wright also was convicted of seizing the antlers of two deer taken illegally and giving the antlers to a friend instead of securing them as crime evidence.

A federal judge ordered probation, house arrest and a $1,000 fine for Wright, who was fired by the Natural Resources Department in 2011.

Government prosecutors said the case involved a pattern of criminal conduct and that Wright’s actions jeopardized the honor system that is the backbone of state hunting and fishing programs.