By Michael Howell
Following a month long investigation by the County Attorney’s Office, Commissioner J.R. Iman was cleared of any wrongdoing in relation to some actions, the legality of which were questioned by other commissioners. The actions had to do with a rental transaction and the handling and disposal of county property.
Planning Board member Bill Menager followed the events leading up to the investigation closely from the beginning and prepared a signed statement containing a set of allegations against Iman. Menager claimed that Iman had possibly violated the law and county policy on at least three occasions by renting equipment to the county, by taking a snow plow from the county road shop and by brokering a deal for the sale of a trailer to a third party. He also accused Iman of allegedly intimidating a road department employee during one of the incidents.
The Commissioners held a meeting about the issues on March 14 and on April 3, after which Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher e-mailed the County Attorney describing the three situations that had been made known to him that might constitute violations of Montana Code.
Iman responded to the County Attorney’s office about Kanenwisher’s e-mail on April 11, in a five-page response with attached supporting documents and on April 16, special investigator for the County Attorney, Pete Clarkson, was assigned to investigate the facts underlying the allegations.
Former County Commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff said that she was contacted by Clarkson requesting an interview about the allegations but that she declined. Instead, she sent her comments and recollections about the incidents in question to the state and sent copies to Clarkson and others.
In a letter addressed to Mike Sehelstedt at Montana Association of Counties, Grandstaff wrote, “I have some grave concerns that the commission and the county attorney’s office in Ravalli County have instigated two politically-motivated investigations, one of which resulted in the termination of the county road supervisor, and another which has targeted Commissioner J.R. Iman. I have been asked to give a statement to the county attorney’s investigator in regards to the Iman investigation. While I am glad to do so, and while I believe Commissioner Iman acted properly, I am concerned that my statement will be ignored. There is precedence for this. During the investigation into the county road supervisor, approximately 10 interviews of road department employees were taken by the investigator, though they were never presented during the deputy county attorney’s prosecution of the road supervisor. I am not interested in spending my time giving an interview to see it go into the same black hole as the road department interviews. Rather, I prefer to send my statement on to someone I trust. Thank you for agreeing to accept it.”
County Attorney Bill Fulbright sent a summary of the results of his investigation to the commissioners last Friday, May 25. In each instance, following detailed analysis of the allegation and the facts surrounding it, Fulbright finds that Iman’s conduct clearly did not violate the rules of conduct for public officials.
In the case of the mower, Fulbright found that Iman had allowed the Airport to use his mower for free when the airport’s mower broke and the airport could not afford to purchase one. The following year the commissioners agreed to rent Iman’s mower for $1,000 per year. They approved the same arrangement the following year. The commission made the same decision in the 2011-12 budget, but before the spring mowing season the airport purchased a new mower.
Fulbright notes that each of these decisions was made at a public meeting with full disclosure and everyone’s understanding that the mower belonged to Iman. On March 13, when the mower was purchased, the rental contract for 2012 was cancelled. Iman excluded himself from voting based on his ownership of the rental mower.
Fulbright determines, based on these facts, that the allegation that Iman violated standards of conduct required of public officials was not justified.
The second allegation Fulbright addressed was that Commissioner Iman helped “broker” the trade of a trailer owned by Ravalli County Road and Bridge Department to Don Dunbar, owner of Don’s Home Center, and may have profited from it.
“There is no legitimate basis to this complaint,” wrote Fulbright. He found that Iman had no ownership interest in Don’s Home Center. He also found that the sale of the trailer in question to Dunbar was done according to county policy and disposed of correctly. Dunbar had learned about the existence of some trailers and that the county could not use them for the purpose they were purchased for. He had been looking for a trailer to pull behind his jeep in the annual parade. He contacted Iman about purchasing the trailer and Iman put him in touch with the Road Department Supervisor.
Fulbright found that, “Iman was not involved in the transaction, and at most facilitated the disposal of surplus property in accord with the Ravalli County Surplus Property Policy. Properly followed, the policy appears to have achieved one of its purposes, recovering appropriate value to the county for otherwise unused property.”
The third allegation considered was that Iman had removed a county owned snowplow from the road department lot and kept it in his possession for part of January 2012. The snowplow was not in working order, and was returned by Commissioner Iman to the Road Department lot by February 1, 2012.
The snowplow scenario is described in detail. Originally purchased by the Parks Department it fell into disuse when it didn’t fit the job. It was transported to the Road Department where it sat dysfunctional. It was briefly put in the recycle bin for scrap metal and drew Iman’s attention. He had the plow removed and stored it at a property he owns near Woodside. It sat there unused until it was returned to the road shop on February 1.
Fulbright notes that it is true that Iman was in possession of county property for part of January.
“However, that limited conduct does not, in and of itself, clearly establish that he violated the statutorily mandated standards of conduct. To illustrate, the snowplow was not used for Commissioner Iman’s private business purposes… nor was it used to create an economic benefit to Iman or a business in which he was involved… Apparently Commissioner Iman took delivery of the snowplow because he thought it had been scrapped and was of little value to the county.”
Besides finding this complaint unjustified, Fulbright also found that the allegation concerning Iman’s behavior towards a road department employee in relation to this event was also unfounded.
He found no evidence that Iman intended to or initiated any disciplinary action against the employee.
“His statement to Mr. Bryan appears to have been an expression of frustration arising out of his misapprehension that the snowplow had been scrapped,” wrote Fulbright.
Fulbright said finally that he found no evidence of any quid pro quo associated with Iman’s votes in the disciplinary action of David Ohnstad and his taking possession of the snowplow.
Fulbright did make a couple of recommendations on how to avoid such situations in the future.
He suggests that any contact by a commissioner with an employee that “might be considered disciplinary” should be in accordance with policy and handbooks should be followed and when it is not clear a third party should accompany the commissioner when contact is made with the employee. He suggests another commissioner, a shop steward, the department head or the County Director of Human Services.
Fulbright also suggested that the county’s surplus property policy should be clarified and enforced.
“While the item in question here clearly is of limited value, it remains property of Ravalli County, whether as a repairable snow plow or scrap metal,” he wrote.
The Commissioners were scheduled to discuss the County Attorney’s memo concerning the investigation on Tuesday, May 29.