CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Before anyone can carry a concealed weapon in Ohio, they are required to undergo mandatory firearms training, like the courses offered by the National Rifle Association.
But some people say they've passed the required course without ever taking it, possibly putting their lives and others at risk.
Cleveland 19 News interviewed three people who claim they each paid NRA certified instructor Anthony Drago $100 and in exchange received the documentation required to obtain a CCW permit in Ohio.
They all say Drago did not make them complete the eight hours of instructional gun training as required by law, including the minimum two hours of in-person range time and live-fire training.
"I answered three questions and it was handed to me," said one of the men we interviewed, who did not want to be identified. "[Drago] said, 'Congratulations. You have your CCW.'"
The man told us he never took the mandatory safety course or fired a gun under Drago's instructional watch.
NRA Basic Pistol Course completion certificates signed by Anthony Drago (Source: WOIO)
We caught up with Anthony Drago in April. When not running his family's plumbing business, Drago says he has certified around fifty people in firearms safety.
One of those supposedly taught by Drago was a Portage County woman who told us she sought a concealed carry permit about two and a half years ago after receiving threats from an ex-boyfriend.
"The guy I was dating, we had broken up," she said. "He had gone kinda a little crazy, and was threatening my life and my children's lives."
The woman said she gave Drago $100, and despite never taking a firearms safety course or even firing a weapon, Drago gave her an official NRA Basic Pistol Course Certificate of Completion - signed by the instructor himself.
The woman was then able to take her certificate to the Portage County Sheriff's Office, where she applied for and later received a CCW permit. State records show between 2015 and 2017, the Portage County Sheriff's Office issued 5,869 CCW permits and renewed more than 2,000.
"Training is vitally important," said Jerry Cooper, a state certified firearms instructor who works at Select Fire Training Center in Berea. "It's important because it does give you a basic skills to where you can be safe with a firearm and also be able to protect yourself."
I asked Cooper if there is any reason why someone should get a signed firearms course certificate without ever actually taking a course.
"I see no reason at all. It's a terrible idea. It's a dangerous idea," Cooper replied. "It puts them in a terrible position because that person is very high risk. Very terrible things can happen as far as using that gun inappropriately, not knowing the laws."
Another man told us he paid Drago $100 in cash and received a signed NRA course completion certificate, but never actually took the course. He used the certificate to get a CCW permit through the Portage County Sheriff's Office, but says he had second thoughts about three months ago and returned his permit. He told us he asked the department to investigate Drago, but says he was told it wasn't a priority.
About the time we started calling the Portage County Sheriff's Office, they opened an investigation. Sheriff David Doak confirmed to Cleveland 19 News that an active investigation is underway into Drago and the fraudulent certificate claims.
Drago told us there's nothing to the claims - just sour grapes from a bad employee who once worked for him.
"Why would he and others say they didn't actually take the course?" I asked Drago.
"Again, that's untrue," he replied. "I think he's saying that for retribution because I'm suing him for theft."
Anthony Drago (Source: WOIO)
We found similar cases here in Ohio, where certified instructors were caught and later convicted of essentially selling CCW course certificates.
Alvin Bagley, an NRA certified instructor from Akron, was convicted of certifying more than 200 people without the proper instruction. One of his clients was Matthew Warmus, who is currently serving a sentence of 18 years to life in prison for the 2010 fatal shooting of a parking lot attendant in downtown Cleveland.
While we couldn't find anyone who served actual jail time for fraudulently issuing certificates, Drago potentially faces years in prison if he is ultimately charged and convicted.
So how many people supposedly trained by Drago are walking around with CCW permits? Both the Portage County Sheriff's Department and the Ohio Attorney General, who tracks concealed handgun licenses statistics, referred us to the NRA. We made multiple calls to the NRA's public affairs office, which handles media inquiries. Each time, we were referred to NRA media relations manager Jason Brown. Brown did not return any of our messages.
One of the men who told us he received a fraudulent certificate from Drago says he was also brushed off by the powerful gun lobby group.
"In Ohio, it's a crime," he said. "If the NRA doesn't do anything, how many other people are sliding on this?"
Under Ohio law, county sheriffs are responsible for issuing, denying, suspending, or revoking concealed carry licenses. Those statistics must be reported to the Ohio Attorney General's Office on a quarterly basis.
In 2017, county sheriffs issued 131,345 regular licenses (77,281 new licenses and 54,064 renewal licenses) and 45 temporary licenses. Over 2,100 CCW license holders had their permits suspended or revoked.
The following 2017 report from the Ohio Attorney General's Office contains a county-by-county breakdown of CCW licenses: