New York State Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro today announced that her office’s investigation into the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Division of Forest Protection found a pattern of supervisory shortcomings that enabled a forest ranger to engage in widespread misconduct, including having inappropriate sexual encounters while on duty, stealing DEC gym equipment for use in his commercial gym, and purportedly commuting 170 miles each way to a supervisory job.
“The Division of Forest Protection’s rangers are tasked with protecting New York’s invaluable natural resources – a job that demands accountability and effective leadership,” said Inspector General Tagliafierro. “My office found instead systemic failures including unsupervised and undisciplined rangers conducting personal business on the taxpayers’ dime. The Division has since enacted significant reforms to ensure that those tasked with protecting our forests are continually held accountable for performing that role with integrity.”
The DEC’s Division of Forest Protection is charged with protecting New York’s five million acres of public land and natural resources. Forest rangers are police officers who enforce both New York State Penal Law and Environmental Conservation Law. They are responsible for suppressing forest fires, managing State lands and resources, issuing tickets for offenses, and conducting search and rescue operations for lost or injured individuals on forest lands. Rangers patrol their assigned regions as police officers, visit campsites and trailheads, investigate private logging on public lands, and respond to emergency rescues, among other duties.
In July 2019, the Inspector General initiated an investigation into alleged misconduct by Charles Richardson, a DEC Division of Forest Protection forest ranger 1. It was found that Richardson engaged in inappropriate sexual encounters while on duty on at least two occasions and, as a part-time police officer in Boonville (Oneida County), he worked for the police department during his DEC working hours.
The Inspector General uncovered additional wrongdoing by Richardson, including:
Misuse of state property: Richardson co-owns the Black River Training Company, a private gym in Boonville. While working as the head physical training instructor of DEC’s training academy in Pulaski, he ordered the construction of 15 wooden “jump boxes” and purchased various gym equipment for use at the academy. The Inspector General’s investigation found that several of the boxes ended up at his private gym.
Failing to file paperwork: Richardson failed to timely submit required biweekly reports for 23 weeks in 2017 and 2018, as well as annual arrest and ticketing reports. In 2016 and 2017, Richardson failed to timely submit his biweekly timesheets with 22 out of 26 timesheets being tardy. Other than being counseled for his late timesheets in 2017, no other disciplinary action was taken.
Failing to abide by residency requirements: Rangers are required to reside within a geographically designated district within the region to which they are assigned. In March 2018, Richardson was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to Region 8 in Monroe County. In this new title, Richardson supervised six rangers. This required Richardson to relocate from Region 6. He claimed his new address was in Hilton (in DEC Region 8), when, in fact, the address belonged to Richardson’s friend, who stated that Richardson rarely stayed there. Instead, Richardson purportedly commuted from Boonville to his Region 8 office in Bath – an approximately 170-mile/3-hour commute each way – for each shift. He stated he performed his supervisory duties over the phone and was rarely physically present in Region 8 while on duty.
The Inspector General’s investigation found that Richardson’s misconduct was facilitated by systemic deficiencies in supervision in the Division of Forest Protection:
Ineffective supervision: Forest rangers work independently, have wide discretion to set their schedules, and are infrequently supervised. Some rangers reported having no direct meetings with supervisors for several weeks. Additionally, when rangers failed to file mandatory reports detailing official activities, supervisors often neglected to address the noncompliance.
Unclear residency policy: The Division’s residency policy is inconsistently interpreted. Rangers disregarded residency requirements often with the consent of supervisors. This enabled “super-commuting” and created situations in which rangers may not have been available to respond to emergencies.
To remedy these issues, the Inspector General recommends DEC:
• Revise policies to require more meetings between supervisors and rangers.
• Revise residency policies to provide clear definitions.
• Revise inventory policies and practices to ensure the integrity of assets.
DEC advised that it has commenced disciplinary action against Richardson in response to the Inspector General’s findings. In addition, DEC implemented several operational and personnel changes to address issues raised in the investigation. Specifically:
• DEC’s executive deputy commissioner was assigned to oversee the operations of its law enforcement divisions on an interim basis in October 2019.
• A new acting director was appointed to lead the Division of Forest Protection in January 2020.
• A new deputy commissioner of public protection was appointed in April 2020 to oversee the law enforcement divisions and tasked with improving procedures and operations.
Inspector General Tagliafierro thanked DEC for bringing the aforementioned issues and allegations to her office’s attention and fully cooperating with the investigation.
The report, “Investigation of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Forest Protection,” is available online.