By Julie Carr Smyth
Eighteen more state wildlife officers are being referred for possible criminal prosecution after a follow-up investigation into illegal hunting while on duty uncovered additional cases, the state watchdog said.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said it immediately would place 17 officers on administrative duty and remove their law enforcement powers pending an internal investigation. The 18th officer, a supervisor, has retired.
Inspector General Randall Meyer 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 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.
Natural Resources spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle said the department has responded to activities highlighted in the probes, which go back as far as former Gov. Ted Strickland's administration, with updated protocols and officer education.
She said an internal investigation would be conducted, allowing the officers to present their sides of the story before a determination is made on any further disciplinary action.
The department's 140-member Wildlife Division has at least one wildlife officer in each of the state's 88 counties. Officers identified in the probe were from Adams, Belmont, Butler, Champaign, Columbiana, Defiance, Fayette, Franklin, Gallia, Geauga, Highland, Hocking, Holmes, Mercer, Sandusky, Stark, Vinton and Wyandot counties.