ODNR official's son lived in state-owned house for more than year

State spent $23,000 to renovate a residence.
MCT Regional News
Dec 30, 2013

The state of Ohio spent $23,000 to renovate a residence on state parkland where the son of a state park official lived for more than a year, paying $300 a month rent and not paying utilities for a year.

That official is Jon Dobney, second in command of the division of state parks at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. He told investigators looking into the matter that he initially wanted to bulldoze the house because renovating it would be too expensive, but records show the work went forward under his oversight and his son ended up as the tenant.

The Dobneys came under scrutiny by the Ohio Inspector General this year. The state government watchdog had 30 publicly released investigations this year and two focused on Jon Dobney’s son, state Park Officer Brad Dobney. For issues unrelated to the house, the investigations found evidence of possible dereliction of duty and misuse of state computers, leading to Brad Dobney’s termination in February.

But he was rehired last month under an agreement between ODNR and the Fraternal Order of Police.

The Dayton Daily News obtained the records of the two investigations after Dobney was rehired. The records show the inquiries went high up into the agency, questioning and clearing Jon Dobney of inappropriate conduct in his son’s hiring, his move into the house and his selection for a competetive slot in a manager-in-training program.

House for $300 a month

Records show the father was involved in the $23,000 house renovation project, and may have pulled some strings to at least get new flooring added to the construction work.

Brad Dobney lived from 2007 to 2011 in an upstairs apartment above the Carriage House building at Quail Hollow State Park in Stark County. When he started living there, he worked as a part-time maintenance worker for the parks division.

His rent at that point was $144 a month, in line with department policy that sets rent for park-owned property at one-third of the estimated market value.

Brad Dobney was then hired as a parks officer in December, 2010, to work at Cleveland Lakefront State Park.

In July 2011, parks chief David Payne — who had just been appointed by newly elected Gov. John Kasich in January — said he took a tour of Quail Hollow and was saddened to see a historic home called the Levitt House had no one living in it.

The house is a 2,553 square foot single-family home with three bedrooms and three and a half bathrooms. It was valued at $164,600 and had been the childhood home of one of Payne’s best friends, Payne said.

“And when I took a tour of it I was like ‘What are we doing with it; why is it sitting there? And that doesn’t make sense.’ The taxpayers of the State of Ohio would be outraged that this house is just sitting there uninhabited. What would it cost to fix it up? And that’s kind of how I remember — and there were discussions going on, hey, how do we — how do we get this house back to where someone could live in it,” Payne told investigators.

When he got back to the office, Payne said he told Jon Dobney to fix the place up and get someone living in it. Dobney said he did so reluctantly.

“I said, ‘I’d like to knock it down. I’d like to bulldoze it because I think it’s going to be too expensive,’” Dobney told investigators. “(Payne) didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to knock it down.”

So renovation proceeded. Then it had to be decided who would live there.

Dobney said the park manager decided who to put into the house, though then-park manager Charlotte McCurdy told investigators she had nothing to do with it.

“I was told by my supervisor, Doug Lyons, and supervisor Bruce Carpenter that Brad and his family would be moving into the Levitt House,” she said.

Lyons, who was district manager for parks, said he was approached by senior managers asking why there was no one in the Levitt House.

“I explained to them that in the past we’d always been denied any time we wanted to put somebody in that house and they explain - Chief Payne and, and Assistant Chief Dobney both, I had conversations with both of them at different times on that residence and they told me both that they wanted Brad Dobney in that residence,” he said, according to a transcript of Lyons’ interview with the OIG’s office obtained by this newspaper.

By September 2011, Brad Dobney was overseeing renovation of the house, according to ODNR emails. Many of those emails were copied to Jon Dobney. The renovations included $7,600 for a new roof, $8,400 for furnaces, $794 for paint. At that time Brad was requesting $4,480 more for new flooring.

When Brad was told by his boss there wasn’t enough money in the budget for the flooring, he sent an email to his father complaining. The flooring was replaced. The house’s total renovation bill was $23,352.

Jon Dobney said he did nothing more on that renovation project than he would for any other resident.

“He’s no different than anybody else living in a state residence,” he said.

Brad moved into the house in December 2011, and began paying $300 a month in rent, a low rate consistent with ODNR’s policy to charge one-third market value. The policy aims to encourage trusted people to live on parks property for security and maintenence.

A year later, the state realized he never switched the utilities into his name and demanded $3,156 in back payments. Dobney entered into an agreement last January to pay that back at $263 a month.

But the payments stopped just a month later when Dobney was fired after the first of two critical investigations by the Ohio Inspector General came out.

Son catches, releases wanted man

Brad Dobney’s first run-in with the OIG, according to the records, stemmed from an incident at Cleveland Lakeside State Park, where he was working on Memorial Day 2012 with another officer named Joshua Gardner.

The duo were patrolling the park, where they encountered a group of people after the park closed. They ran a check on one man and found he had a warrant out for his arrest on charges of grand theft auto.

Dobney called his dispatcher and asked if he could drop the man off for the sheriff’s office to process. His dispatcher relayed part of the message to the sheriff’s office, leaving the parks officers with the false impression that the jail officers would take the guy when they got there.

But that was not jail policy, and the corrections officers told Dobney and Garnder they had to escort the prisoner and book him themselves. They refused, and instead gave the alleged felon a ride to an east Cleveland street corner and let him go.

Not only was this a violation of policy, it was possibly criminal, investigators found. Both men were charged with misdemeanor dereliction of duty. Court records show both men pleaded not guilty and agreed to some sort of diversion program before their records were sealed in November.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources responded to the OIG report saying “both employees were removed.”

Officers assign selves overtime

During the investigation into the Cleveland incident, OIG investigators also stumbled on a practice that let parks officers freely assign themselves overtime.

Both Dobney and Gardner started hours before their schedule start time on Memorial Day, and worked hours later, without needing to get any supervisor approval, according to the OIG report.

Since it was a holiday they were paid 8 hours of regular pay, 8 hours of “holiday worked” at a rate of 1.5 times their normal pay, and several hours of “holiday overtime” pay of double time and a half. This allowed Dobney to assign himself to work four hours at $51.62 per hour and Gardner to do so at $65.35 per hour.

Division of Parks Law Enforcement Supervisor Gene Shrum told investigators this was common practice because they are short-staffed and have a huge attrition budget.

“I know no matter how much overtime I work them, it’s not going to equal this pot of money. There’s no way possible,” he said. “There’s not enough time in the day for these guys to work that much.”

ODNR responded with a July 17 letter to all parks managers saying while they know that overtime is sometimes necessary, it must be approved in advance when possible.

Blogging about Xavier on the clock

From the time the first investigation was launched in June 2012 and until he was removed in February 2013, Brad Dobney was put on restricted duty and transferred to Wingfoot State Park, only 10 minutes from the park where he lived in the Levitt House.

His actions while on desk duty led to another investigation, launched in October 2012.

That investigation looked at whether Jon Dobney had anything to do with his son’s hiring, how the renovation of the Levitt House came about or how had Brad Dobney been selected for a competitive parks management program. It also investigated allegations Brad Dobney was using a state computer, while on the clock, to update a sports blog he was being paid for.

Investigators did find Brad Dobney had updated his Xavier University sports blog “Banners on the Parkway” and visited other sites on 84 occasions from August 2011 through October 2012. His last blog post went up an hour and a half before his computer was confiscated as part of the investigation.

A forensic analysis of the computer found he spent more than 13 hours editing three posts to the website in August and October 2012 during hours he was paid to work. A review of his bank account found payments apparently to Brad Dobney from his brother for work on the site.

‘Did I try to favor him? No’

The terminations for Brad Dobney and for Gardner were later turned into unpaid suspensions after the Fraternal Order of Police challenged the dismissals. The agreement between the FOP and ODNR, signed Nov. 14, says “ODNR believes that just cause exists to warrant discharge of the employee,” but they wanted to avoid the union arbitration. Gardner was suspended until July 28. Brad Dobney was suspended until Nov. 17.

The OIG cleared Jon Dobney of any involvement in his son’s hire, of any inappropriate conduct related to the Levitt House and of any involvement in Brad Dobney being accepted into a competitive management program at ODNR.

Jon Dobney did not return calls seeking comment for this article. Messages left for Brad Dobney were returned by a representative of the FOP, who said he would not comment for this article.

Dobney went back to work Nov. 17 at a rate of $20.17 per hour, with his seniority, and the period of his termination is considered unpaid leave. He will have 13 hours of pay deducted from his paychecks to make up for the time he was blogging on the clock, according to the agreement between the FOP and ODNR.

He is also making payments again on the utilities he didn’t pay at the Levitt House, according to union officials.

If he messes up again, the agreement says, he’ll be fired.

Jon Dobney told investigators it’s natural in many fields for children to want to do what their parents do and he tried to avoid any perception of preferential treatment given to his son.

“Did I try to create problems? No, I did not. Did I try to favor him? No, I did not,” he said, according to transcripts. “And you can ask the questions any way you want and whatever allegations you got can look however they appear, but I’m telling you I made a point of trying to stay out of it. Because I didn’t, you know, exactly what happened is what I wanted to avoid.”

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By Josh Sweigart - Dayton Daily News, Ohio (MCT)

©2013 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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