By JULIE CARR SMYTH | AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Sixteen of the 18 Ohio wildlife officers referred for illegal on-duty hunting by the state watchdog have been cleared by the state and were returned to their jobs Tuesday.
An Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman said the officers got their guns and trucks back after being on administrative leave since December during an internal review.
One officer, who was not immediately named, has been referred for discipline, spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle said. Another has retired.
The internal state review uncovered new evidence unavailable to Inspector General Randall Meyer, McCorkle said. Phone records, logs and individual accounts determined the officers, who all have home offices, weren't on duty when they hunted, she said. Meyer had requested to interview the officers, which they declined.
"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 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 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.