They wandered and they loitered. They appeared to shop. They ate ice cream. They hung around for much of the day by political booths including the Spore Infoshop, an anarchist bookstore and community space, and the Ohio Rights Group, an organization attempting to place a pro-medical marijuana and industrial hemp initiative on the ballot. They were not, however, your average Comfest attendees. They were agents of the Ohio Investigative Unit (OIU) of the Ohio Department of Public Safety (ODPS) who may have been working for or with the Department of Homeland Security.
When a Comfest visitor took a camera phone picture of a badly handmade Harley Davison T-shirt stretched over the central girth of one of the agents, the other agents swarmed and the unfortunate photographer was arrested.
The Comfest visitor was charged with disorderly conduct for taking photos of the agent.
The lead agent, later identified as Michelle Thourot, immediately left the ice cream line to take charge. The agents produced business cards showing their employment at the Ohio Investigative Unit (OIU). Calls to the number of Thourot's business card were eventually returned and the Free Press was told that it was against policy for OIU agents to speak on record to the press. A referral was made to the unit's public affairs officer, Julie Heinz, who was allegedly on vacation until after press time.
Subsequent calls for comment eventually garnered brief explanations from Eric Wolf, OIU agent in charge of administration. Wolf explained that, “We were at the event looking for alcohol violations, under-age drinking and such and that often leads to a few drug-related arrests.” Wolf also confirmed that Assistant Agent in charge Thourot was the supervisor on the scene for the entire Comfest weekend.
OIU's primary job is liquor, tobacco and food stamp enforcement. The Ohio Department of Public Safety maintains its own Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Emergency Management Agency. The Ohio DHS has integrated a state-of-the-art fusion center called the Strategic Analysis and Information Center where ODHS works directly in the same building with Columbus Police, USDHS, the FBI and the TSA (Transportation Security Agency).
When asked about any connection to Emergency Management or Homeland Security, including Thurot's experience and deployment, Wolf replied “Uh, um, FEMA-Homeland security may have been working the event but not with our enforcement agents but our agents should have only identified themselves as OIU.” When pressed on the connections he ended the call so he could check on it.
A callback from Wolf confirmed that he had no administrative records of Thourot and company being tasked with Homeland Security duties at that time and such duties were not within scope of OIU's deployment at Comfest.
Why a booth from a political bookstore and an advocacy group were targeted as good places at Comfest to loiter in the hopes of enforcing liquor laws is not clear. Training manuals for the OIU are not available to the Free Press at this time and there is no way to be sure if OIU agents can distinguish between beer and ice cream, as both are served from wheeled vehicles at Comfest.
Although not officially deployed to monitor political speech at a community festival in a public park, OIU was somehow doing it anyway under the guise of liquor enforcement. Despite being separate departments, ODHS and OFEMA are together part of the overall framework of the ODPS. A Highway Patrol trooper answers the phone at OIU's office. This would suggest that OIU agents are sometimes used for homeland security purposes as part of ODPS's overall participation in the Strategic Analysis and Information Center.
Wolf appears to have neatly avoided discussing how books and ballots are a potential threat to homeland security. The potential disclosure of such an operation was enough to prompt the arrest of a photographer in a public park at a public festival.

Appears in Issue: