By Michael Howell
On Tuesday, January 21, beleagured Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey chose to use the meeting at which she was scheduled to give an update on her work in the treasurer’s department to instead launch a salvo of her own, making allegations of corruption and deceptive practices on the part of county officials. She also chose not to respond to the commissioners’ request for an explanation of a default judgment against her in a South Carolina court. The commissioners had scheduled a meeting for Thursday, January 23 to discuss Stamey’s response and make a decision on what to do about it. At that meeting, the county commissioners voted unanimously to put Stamey on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
Court judgment ignites controversy
The recent revelation of a South Carolina court case involving Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey has become the center of a cyclone of controversy that not only threw the treasurer’s integrity into question but now includes allegations of corruption by county commissioners and previous illegalities in the treasurer’s office prior to Stamey’s arrival.
The South Carolina case, filed on September 20, 2010, includes allegations that Stamey, using her maiden name Valerie Addis at the time, received a check for $18,149 issued on a mortgage based loan and made out to her credit card company, Discover Credit Services. She is accused of using the account information contained on the check to make a phone payment to Discover Credit Services for $18,149 and then also submitting the check for payment, in fact making a double payment to the tune of $36,298. A default judgment against Stamey (Addis) was entered in that case on September 15, 2011.
Two weeks ago, on Friday, January 17, Commission Chair Greg Chilcott had a letter hand delivered to the Treasurer’s office demanding an explanation of the allegations contained in the default judgment and giving her a deadline to produce it of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, January 21. Commissioner Suzy Foss announced to the press that Stamey would not wait until the deadline hour but would provide a response at her regularly scheduled treasurer’s update on Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. Chilcott also set a date for Thursday, January 23 for the commission to discuss and perhaps make some decision about the issue.
Stamey alleges corruption
At the regularly scheduled treasurer’s update meeting on Tuesday, Stamey did not answer to the allegations contained in the default judgment, nor did she provide any update concerning the ongoing crisis due to lack of reconciliation and monthly reports to the finance office. Instead, she delivered a litany of accusations against past treasurers and office staff, made claims of corruption and cover up by a few of the commissioners, and, among other things, demanded that all other signatures except hers be taken off the county’s bank account or she would have the funds moved to another bank.
Stamey appeared to be reading from a prepared statement but afterward she refused to submit the written statement to the commissioners’ administrative assistant who requested a copy for the record. Instead, Stamey abruptly exited the meeting. As she left the room she did say that she was having copies distributed. Former Planning Board Chairman Jan Wisniewski immediately stood up and began distributing several copies of a document that he claimed were copies of the document being requested.
The Bitterroot Star has compared the audio recording of Stamey’s remarks to the written document handed out by Wisniewski. In comparison, almost every deviation is an omission of some things contained in Stamey’s remarks with respect to what is included in the written documents. Other than those omissions, her verbal remarks follow pretty much verbatim the written document.
“What you see in the papers is an orchestrated and vile campaign to destroy my character to protect corrupt county commissioner, J.R. Iman, who has been knowingly protected by Greg Chilcott,” said Stamey. “The further purposes of this character assassination were to cover up missing files that were intentionally removed from the treasurer’s office by Joanne Johnson. These missing files contained receipts and documentation including expenditures of Federal monies, and to hide the illegal selling of tax liens by Linda Isaacs and Mary Borden. I will bring suit against these parties for their various tortious actions against me.”
She called her office “a crime scene of past illegal activity” and said she had asked the FBI to investigate. She accused Iman of threatening her and telling her to keep quiet. She said he was “very disturbed that I was attempting to do my job.” In the written document, she accuses Iman of having “stolen county property,” but gives no details.
Stamey said that she pleaded with Greg Chilcott and Jeff Burrows to do something about it, but her pleas “fell on deaf ears.”
“Greg, you know that MACo has already told the county commissioners that you can’t remove me at will, so why the fallacious press story to the contrary?” Stamey asked.
What she omitted saying, if you compare it to the written statement produced by Wisniewski, was, “In fact after presenting Greg Chilcott with clear evidence of the above, I heard Mr. Chilcott go into J.R. Iman’s office and tell J.R. ‘God dammit you son of a bitch what the f–k [expletive edited by Star] have you done now?’ These are Mr. Chilcott’s words not mine. Clearly Mr. Chilcott knew of J.R. Iman’s corrupt tendencies, and clearly Mr. Chilcott’s clandestine actions against me last Friday are as corrupt,” the written document states.
Stamey reiterated her claims against Johnson about removing files from the office three years ago. What she doesn’t say, but is contained in the written statement, is an accusation against current staffer Bonnie Dugan, alleging that Dugan “intimidated an employee who was attempting to catalogue the extent of the files that are missing.” Stamey also referred to some property tax deeds transferred through assignment of tax liens over the past several years that were “done illegally.”
Stamey said that “this orchestrated attack that you have read about in the papers went into overdrive following my request [it says ‘demand’ in the written version] to the county commissioners that they must do something about the illegally sold tax liens or that I will have to.”
Stamey then makes a list of statements and demands including:
• I demand Joanne Johnson and Klarysse Murphy immediately return the missing files and any other secreted away or removed files personally to me in the treasurer’s office.
• Commissioners in compliance with their own rules are prohibited from communicating with any department employee during their work activities.
• In compliance with Montana law, office policies will be enacted that ensure that documents are never taken from the treasurer’s office again.
• The county commissioners will allocate necessary funds for the protection of public records in my office including a security guard or I will seek a court order.
• I will establish office protocols in accordance with Montana state law for the proper disbursement and keeping of all public funds. Montana law has been held in contempt by this commission and by prior county treasurers; this will end today.”
What she did not say, but was contained in the written document delivered by Wisniewski, was:
• I am suspending Bonnie Dugan with pay as her continued presence in the office will contaminate the necessary investigations.
• All correspondence with my office will be in non-electronic writing directed solely to Valerie Stamey Ravalli County Treasurer. All other intra county communications will not be recognized nor acted upon. Taxpayer requests of calls from non-Ravalli County entities that I wish to take will be recognized.
• All other signatories on treasury office accounts at First Interstate Bank besides my own will be removed or I will change banks.
• Henceforth the treasurer’s office will be closed between 12 and 1 p.m. every working day as is allowed by Montana law.
Immediately following the meeting at which Stamey made her allegations and her own quick exit, Commissioner Jeff Burrows was asked in the hallway if he had a response to the treasurer’s update.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” said Burrows. “This is the first I have ever heard of these allegations. I’m shocked and surprised. I’m still trying to comprehend it all.”
Burrows said that, contrary to what Stamey alleges, she never expressed her concerns about these things to him before and that she was making some pretty bold claims.
The next day, after consulting with legal counsel, Burrows responded to, what he called, Stamey’s nine “ultimatums.”
First he said that he had viewed the signature card for the treasurer’s account at First Interstate Bank that morning and it contained the names Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott, Treasurer Valerie Stamey, Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg and Finance Officer Janna Exner.
As to the nine ultimatums, he said, Bonnie Dugan had not been suspended. He said that according to county rules, there is a process that you have to go through before you can suspend someone.
“You can’t just arbitrarily and capriciously suspend an employee,” said Burrows. “There has to be cause and there has to be process. So she’s at work today.”
As for the claim of missing files, he deferred to Chief Finance Officer Klarysse Murphy.
Murphy told the Bitterroot Star that she doesn’t know what files Stamey is claiming are missing from the treasurer’s office because the only specific files referred to are ones containing receipts and documentation related to federal expenditures. She said those files have never been located in the treasurer’s office because they are in her files at the finance office.
“My file cabinets are open for perusal,” said Murphy. “Any public official can come in and examine any of these files. There is nothing to hide here.” She said files related to expenditures of all sorts are located there, including those related to federal monies, and could be examined at any time if Stamey was interested.
“Stamey’s office doesn’t do expenditures,” said Murphy. “They are cash in. We are cash out. The treasurer’s office is dealing with revenues and collections. The finance office is dealing with expenditures. We write the checks.” She said federal expenditures were available electronically and could be viewed easily on the double screens of her computer terminal mounted on a desk to be easily available for viewing by anyone.
Burrows said that as far as banning electronic communication with the treasurer’s office he believed state law allows all sorts of communication including electronic.
“I don’t think we can go back to just using pencil and paper as she requests,” said Burrows.
As to the demand for no interaction between the commissioners and her office employees, Burrows said, “I’m not aware of any county policy that prohibits a county commissioner from talking to any employee.”
About the demand to have a sole signature on the bank account, Burrows said, “The money is currently in the account. It is not being moved. We have checks and balances in place to make sure the money is not being moved.” He said one of those balances is ensuring that no one signature can move all the money in that account.
“What I’m saying is that she doesn’t have the authority to do what she is demanding and the money is still safe in that account,” said Burrows.
According to Burrows, the only one of Stamey’s ultimatums that she probably can do something about is closing the office between noon and 1 o’clock as she threatened. He said it is a busy time because many working citizens try to do business on their lunch hour.
“But it does appear that state law would allow the treasurer to close the office at that time,” said Burrows. “If that’s what she thinks needs to be done to get the job done, then it looks like she has the authority to do that.”
What about the demand to supply her with a security guard or she’ll get a court order?
“She doesn’t have the authority to require the commissioners to give her funds for anything,” said Burrows.
He said there were other demands but he found them a little too confusing still to even comment on them. Burrows reiterated that he was blind-sided by these allegations. He said the allegations against him are totally false. He said Stamey never approached him about the various concerns she enumerated in her allegations.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said the same thing. He said Stamey had not pleaded with him over these issues and he categorically denied ever having said the things that she attributed to him. “I never take the Lord’s name in vain, ever,” said Chilcott.
“I was fully expecting an update today on the progress toward the goal of getting out the October report,” said Chilcott. “I expected to hear a response to the allegations in the judgment made in South Carolina. Instead, we get a litany of allegations directed at many people.”
Asked if he was already under investigation, Chilcott said that as far as he knew he was not, but that he had been notified by the Sheriff recently that someone had gone around the county attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office directly to the state Department of Criminal Investigations to institute an investigation into Commissioner Iman and himself concerning these issues.
Sheriff Chris Hoffman, when questioned about Commissioner Chilcott’s remarks, said he could validate them. He said it was Commissioner Suzy Foss and Commissioner Ron Stoltz who were trying to initiate the investigation. He said his concern was that such investigations should proceed through the local county attorney’s office or his office, but these did not. Both Chilcott and the Sheriff said that the request was rebuffed and no investigation had been undertaken as a result of those actions.
Hoffman said that a person from DCI had contacted him about Commissioner Suzy Foss’ attempts to initiate an investigation. The Sheriff then contacted Foss on Friday, January 17, and told her that the proper channel for her request would be through the county attorney’s office and his office. He told her that she needed to get a commission majority to request an investigation and the county attorney’s office or his office would take those concerns to the state if there was any potential conflict of interest.
Hoffman said he asked Foss why she did not follow the legal channels. He said that Foss’ response was that they “did not want to drag me into this political mess.” He said that he asked her why she didn’t take it to the county attorney and she said she “was not comfortable about speaking with the county attorney.” He said she did not elaborate.
Then, within twenty minutes of that phone call with Commissioner Foss, the Sheriff got a call from Commissioner Ron Stoltz.
“He reiterated that he too wanted an investigation,” said Hoffman. “I advised him that they would need to discuss it as a full board and speak to the county attorney.”
Hoffman said that Foss’ contacts with DCI continued through the week as she kept asking for various clarifications. Hoffman said that it culminated in him calling her and telling her to cease and desist in her contact with DCI over official matters.
The Sheriff said that at no time did Foss ever present any documented evidence concerning the allegations made public recently by the treasurer.
“The point of all this,” said Hoffman, “is that we are not trying to forestall any investigation. I have been in touch with outside agencies, including the state DCI, and the FBI, and while an investigation into any of these allegations will not be handled by my office, we will assist any law enforcement agency with jurisdiction appropriately.”
Commissioner Ron Stoltz, when asked for a response to Stamey’s allegations, which she made public on Tuesday, January 23, said, “This is the first time it was presented to me so I don’t want to say anything until I get further information.”
Commissioner J.R. Iman issued a written response following Stamey’s allegations but prior to the county attorney announcing his investigation. In that written statement, Iman said he had a high level of trust and faith in the county’s employees, past and present, and called them a dedicated group.
“My obligation and dedication to the taxpayers is as Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust, but verify’. I have been and will continue to be dedicated to this service to the taxpayers and county government,” said Iman. He said the personal allegations made against him “are without merit and patently false.” He said he would look to the county attorney’s office for guidance regarding an independent investigation and an outside forensic audit of county financial records.
“I will also continue to ask for the financial reports to the commission and request balanced financial statements and timely dispersals for state agencies, county departments, cities, schools, fire departments and irrigation districts so that they can conduct business and complete their audits,” wrote Iman.
On January 23, the same day that the commissioners placed Stamey on administrative leave, they received a letter from Stamey’s attorney, Robert Myers of Montana Resource & Asset Protection, in which he argues that Commissioners Chilcott and Iman should recuse themselves from voting on anything to do with the treasurer. It includes a copy of a letter Myers claims was sent to the USDA, Montana Senators and Representative, the FBI, the Secretary of the Interior, the Department of Justice, and several newspapers around the nation. That letter contains details of the allegations that Stamey refers to in general terms.
In his letter to the commissioners, Myers states, “The letter describes in detail the problems with the current protocol, the responsibility of Klarysse Murphy in the structure of the problem, the missing receipts, and their necessity, and how the actions of J.R. Iman and Bonnie Dugan have created a high probability that a potential misappropriation of Federal dollars could or has taken place.” He urges the county to involve the FBI.
In the letter to the USDA, et al, Myers claims that there are no “printed” records of deposits of USDA funds to the Weed Department since 2008 and no “printed” copies of USDA deposits since 2010 in the treasurer’s office. He claims that printed records are the only real check on computer figures that may be tampered with. Then he gives a detailed, hypothetical description of how someone could adjust the computer software entries to embezzle funds in a way that would not be traceable.
Myers then criticizes CFO Klarysse Murphy’s accounting methods and alleges a “serious lapse in standard accounting procedure and security protocols.” He wants her investigated.
Then he lists a series of “red flags.” One is Stamey’s claim that formerly accurate funding codes were not working and that could only be the fault of Murphy. Another red flag was how Commissioner Iman held Stamey back from getting access to the treasurer’s bank account and the combination to the safe for three weeks. She says he threatened her to keep her quiet about it.
The third red flag accuses Bonnie Dugan of making false charges of theft about another employee. Stamey says the other employee was simply investigating missing receipts.
The last red flag was that one employee had told another employee that previous treasurer JoAnne Johnson had taken some files a few years ago.
“When this lack of integrity is combined with the lack of sufficient protection of U.S.D.A. monies, expended to Ravalli County, corruption and potential misappropriation is a probable outcome,” wrote Myers.
Treasurer placed on administrative leave with pay
Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey did not attend the commissioners’ meeting held last Thursday, January 23, to discuss and possibly decide on some action regarding her office. Instead, a letter was delivered from her attorney, Robert C. Myers of Montana Research and Asset Protection, stating that the County Attorney had initiated a two-part investigation in relation to Stamey’s allegations, some of which are directed at Commissioners Iman and Chilcott and that those two commissioners should recuse themselves from any decision having to do with the treasurer.
Commission Chair Greg Chilcott said, “These allegations are totally without merit. They are so vague as to not be an allegation.” He said there was no truth to the words attributed to him and the incident itself never occurred. Since there was no truth to the allegations at all with respect to himself, he said, he saw no conflict of interest.
Commissioner Ron Stoltz asked for Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht’s opinion.
Recht said that merely because a person makes an allegation against you is no reason to recuse yourself. He said he saw no legal requirement for a commissioner to recuse himself on those grounds.
Commissioner Iman also declined to recuse himself. He explained how the chairman of the board’s signature on the bank account, according to practice, had always been changed when a new chairman was elected. He said without anyone, including himself, being aware that that had not happened since he was last chairman of the board, the oversight had continued through three separate changes of the chair. He said as soon as the problem became evident, the signature card was changed. He also stated that, while the board of commissioners had given him the duty to monitor the treasurer’s office during the transition of the treasurer, this duty was also dropped at the request of the treasurer at the time and he had had no direct contact with the office since that time, except once for personal business.
“I do not feel that my ability to make decisions on this issue has been compromised,” said Iman.
Commissioner Chilcott said that the meeting was called to discuss the default judgment made against Stamey in South Carolina. He said she had been given a chance at two public meetings and once in her office to explain the facts but has not given any answer. “There may be facts or reasons we are not aware of,” said Chilcott. “It does raise concerns about anyone in that position of public trust.”
Public comment was opened and Ed Hebner stated that there were lots of questions raised and allegations made against employees and commissioners. He said he believed Iman should recuse himself.
Michael Howell, publisher of the Bitterroot Star, said that everyone was familiar with the charges in the South Carolina case that ended in a default judgment, but then presented documentation concerning another case that he said was directly related. It was another default judgment against Valerie Addis for $22,438.06 filed in Ravalli County court in April of 2009 by the same credit card company involved in the South Carolina case, Discover Credit Services.
Howell said that, taken together, these two cases showed two things to be concerned about, inappropriate financial activity and disrespect for the law. He said in both cases Stamey had not shown up in court.
“These are serious things,” said Howell. “The court will tell you it shows contempt of court and contempt for the law. That’s just a fact, so it’s worth looking at your county treasurer in this regard. Does she have contempt for the law?”
He said that he could submit documents from the local justice courts showing four more instances where Fail to Appear summonses were issued to Stamey.
“This repeated contempt for the law needs to be addressed by you guys, soon,” said Howell.
Howell said that he also wanted to address the broader issue of problems at the treasurer’s office. He said that people were expecting an update on the status of the delinquent financial reports and he read a letter to the commissioners into the record.
In the letter, Howell points to the law that requires the county treasurer to submit these monthly reports as part of her official duties. He also points to the law requiring the treasurer to forfeit $500 per violation for each delinquent report and requires the board of county commissioners to file the suits necessary to collect those sums.
He notes that, according to information provided by the county finance office upon request, the treasurer has not forfeited those funds, nor has the board of commissioners taken any action to collect the funds as required by law.
“Please, we urge you not to force the newspaper to take extraordinary steps to force you to act on this matter,” said Howell. “The laws were put in place because the required reports are extremely important for school districts and other districts and agencies within the county’s jurisdiction to perform their own fiduciary responsibilities to the public and taxpayers. It’s a very serious matter. To date we are all still in the dark concerning the status of these reports and at the last treasurer’s update we got zero information about the status of those reports. These delinquencies and the concomitant refusal on the treasurer’s part to address them at this point is absolutely unacceptable. For the commissioners to sit by and refuse to act in the face of these obvious and demonstrable violations of the law and acts of misconduct is also completely unacceptable,” said Howell.
Howell also noted that the violation of state law concerning her duties also opens the treasurer to charges of official misconduct. He noted that if such charges were filed the treasurer would, by law, be suspended without pay until an investigation of the charges could be completed, but she could be reinstated with back pay if she was cleared of the charges. He stated that if the commissioners failed to act in regard to these violations of the law that the Bitterroot Star was prepared to seek a court order to force them to do it.
CFO Klarysse Murphy said for the record, “I in no way contacted the press. They have asked me questions and I have replied to those questions in the most honest way I could.”
Stevensville Mayor Gene Mim Mack implored the commissioners to take action to restore public confidence that has been shaken.
“Your challenge, as leaders, is to acknowledge what you face and not ignore the evidence that is compounding in this case,” said Mim Mack. “There is a credibility issue here in a position of extreme trust by the public of their finances.” He said the commissioners were ultimately responsible. He urged the commissioners to “suspend this person in the face of the known facts in front of you and take action to restore public confidence. You have a chance to say we are not going to allow one individual to hold a whole county hostage through extraordinary accusations made without any proof,” said Mim Mack.
Chris Hockman urged the commissioners to look into the default judgments and figure out if it is the same person that is serving as treasurer, because the name is different. He also noted that to his knowledge the remittances owed to the Department of Revenue and the Department of Justice required by law are also delinquent and should be added to the list.
Larry Campbell said that this is making any claims of fiscal responsibility at the county a joke. He criticized the commission for not doing the proper research before appointing the treasurer.
“I guess you are not all equally guilty, but at this point I think you are all equally obliged to suspend this treasurer immediately,” said Campbell.
Elaine Culletto, who works for the Bitter Root Irrigation District, said she was disappointed to learn that some of the commissioners felt that enthusiasm was enough to be appointed as treasurer. She noted that Stamey was calling herself a whistleblower.
“So now you have an enthusiastic whistleblower, but the county has nothing,” said Culletto. “The citizens have nothing.” She said they don’t really have a treasurer because the treasurer’s work is not being done. She said because of that she could not do her work. “I can’t do my job until you do your job,” she told the commissioners. “We need it, not tomorrow, but months ago.”
Daryl Poole said that he was a recent resident of the county but he believes there is a reason all this started in the first place. “From what I’ve heard from her myself is that there are reasons that she started whistle blowing,” said Poole. “She found things that she felt were wrong. The fundamental question is what’s wrong and how it got this way in the first place. This goes not just to Valerie’s character and her propensity to blow the whistle, it goes to things that have been wrong for a long time.”
Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman said that he believes that everyone who works for the county should consider themselves in some sense a whistle blower.
“But it is important to point out that, regardless of what else is going on, the business of the county is grinding to a halt over this matter,” said Hoffman. “My office cannot do its work because the treasurer is not doing hers and I know that I speak for every other elected official in this county right now.” He said his office was working double time to make sure the money that is charged to that office through the budget appropriations is accounted for. He said his office was not getting receipts for the money they deposit with the treasurer. He said his office has yet to receive any accounting for reimbursements from the Forest Service that total as much as $50,000 until they actually do the work for the treasurer’s office. He said that the idea of there being a learning curve was not a good excuse anymore.
“I’m sorry and it is not personal, it is purely business, the treasurer does not know what she is doing and it is impacting every aspect of Ravalli County government and all its subdivisions and every citizen here,” said Hoffman. “I strongly urge you to act.”
Ren Cleveland said that he talked to Commissioner Suzy Foss last week and that she already knew in advance all the things that came up in Stamey’s letter of allegations. “She knew and had contact with Stamey on all this stuff,” said Cleveland, “and as a commissioner I don’t think that’s right.”
A recently hired employee in the treasurer’s office, Michelle Pope, said that, in view of the longstanding problems at the treasurer’s office, a forensic audit should be conducted. She said the office was running amuck well before Stamey arrived. She said there was no accountability and a lack of policies to ensure smooth functioning at the office should some people leave the office taking their personal and undocumented knowledge with them. She said the important thing now was to get the wheels back on the bus, find out where the money is and where it is going. “The citizens deserve explanations, action and resolution, not an ongoing string of impotent discussion and marginal inquiry,” said Pope.
Katherine Smith said that she believed the county was being run by ideology rather than the need for taking care of the public interest. “If you are going to continue to appoint people, especially people in a position of fiduciary responsibility, you need to leave the ideology at home and hire people who are competent,” said Smith.
A few school board members expressed concerns about the lack of reporting and a few other citizens expressed concern that the commissioners did not properly check the references when hiring Stamey.
Former Planning Board Chariman Jan Wisniewski said that he didn’t know why people were trying to dig up all the dirt. Wisniewski complained that the treasurer was being pestered and kept away from her work. He said it was like going into a business and trying to do the accounting when the last two years of books were missing. He also questioned how many people can believe what they read in the press. He claimed to be a victim of shoddy reporting himself.
“If she’s done all these terrible things, has there been a warrant put out for her arrest, any summons issued, and there may be extenuating circumstances,” said Wisniewski. He called the news reports “propaganda.” “The claims that she has made about tax liens and missing files, that’s bad news,” said Wisniewski.
Commissioner Chilcott asked civil attorney Recht for some clarification about the tax lien issue being raised. Recht said that as far as he knew it was a simply a case of procedural error. He said it appears that all the proper procedures were followed in placing the tax liens, however, a record of it was not posted in the Clerk and Recorder’s office as required. Commissioner Burrows asked Recht if an action to suspend Stamey due to official misconduct could be taken at this meeting. Recht said that the process would require filing a criminal complaint with the court and having the court accept the filing and deem it sufficient before the treasurer could be suspended. He said that could not happen at this meeting.
Commissioner Foss asked if there was any other code that was not criminal that might apply. Recht said there was. According to one statute, a person appointed to fill a vacancy serves at the pleasure of the commissioners. Another statute apparently contradicts that. But Recht said most attorneys he discussed it with agree that the first may apply. Recht said that the statute concerning official misconduct would give the commissioners the clearest authority to take some action. But a lawsuit must be commenced. He said that would be the clearest way to take action.
Burrows asked again if they could suspend the treasurer in any other fashion than filing in court. Recht said that the statute which referred to an appointed officer as “serving at the pleasure of the commission” could be interpreted that way, although there is the problem of another statute that could be interpreted in a contradictory fashion. He said there is also a statute giving the commissioners supervisory authority over every office that involves fiduciary responsibilities that could provide a variety of options.
The meeting about the South Carolina case was continued so that the meeting about taking some action about an investigation could be held as scheduled.
Commissioner Foss advocated an investigation into what she called “systemic” problems that have led to having five treasurers in the last three years. She said the questions raised about tax assignments also needed investigation.
Commissioner Stoltz said, “I have some concerns on lots of things. My biggest concern is we need to get this department back up and running. That’s my greatest concern. We can’t keep it in this turmoil. We’ve got to move ahead.”
Commissioner Burrows made a motion to place the treasurer on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation into whether additional action should be taken. He said there did not appear to be a statute that would allow suspension of the treasurer that could be enacted immediately. “Some statutes show a mechanism for suspension but they don’t allow for immediate action that we could stand on today,” said Burrows.
Commissioner Iman agreed with the motion.
Commission Chair Greg Chilcott said that the county attorney’s recent announcement indicated that an independent investigation was already underway. He said that the commission has been trying to help the treasurer’s office in a number ways over a long period of time. He noted that the letter to Stamey demanding a statement about the South Carolina case was not a board decision but one he made as chairman.
Chilcott said he sent the letter “due to the breaking story in the Bitterroot Star about the South Carolina default judgment and the aftermath of that indicates there was some concern about public trust in the person handling the money for the taxpayers. I asked for more information. I asked for ‘the rest of the story,’ as Paul Harvey used to say. Instead, we got no response. Instead, we had allegations, fraud, and an inflammatory false statement credited to me in conversation with J.R. (Iman). I can categorically state that it is untrue. We talked about missing files. We don’t know of any. We have block statements about corruption and missing files, so I’m frustrated at getting absolutely no response. I support the motion.”
Burrows then amended the motion to contain the word “immediately.” That was approved and the Sheriff was requested to go down to the treasurer’s office along with HR director Robert Jenni.
Chilcott then called for public comment, but Commissioner Suzy Foss interjected, saying, “It’s really easy to take something like this and turn it into a big political thing. It’s very obvious that some people have strong emotions and strong loyalties to their belief systems and their parties. That is not a part of our hiring. In my decision making I don’t know, I don’t ask, it’s not in our questions. I don’t know the people who come in front of us. I might know one person of a political persuasion or a certain faith or whatever else you want to ask about, but we don’t ask that. It does not have a place in this business. And you can make all the accusations you want but I can tell you this, I don’t make and don’t know any other board member who ever makes that come into the discussion on how they make a decision. In a department as important as the treasurer how dare any of you, frankly, to make such foolish accusations. That we would be in this office and make such a decision. Doesn’t anybody understand that this is an elected position and they will have to run? I don’t have any idea what our employees’ political persuasion is. Those I’ve hired, who happen to be Republican, the same people could have been on the purple card. It was based on their abilities. So I’m going to ask the press at least to please have the understanding that there is a certain ability for people to put their feelings aside, whether they are red, white, green or purple or whatever, and go for the right person. And that is what I believe this board did.”
After some brief public comments and some final board remarks the final motion, twice amended, to place the treasurer on administrative leave immediately, with pay, pending an investigation, and to have the Sheriff enforce the motion, was approved unanimously.
The Sheriff and Human Resource Director Robert Jenni went down to the treasurer’s office but she was not there. According to Hoffman, the combination to the safe has been changed and the office was secure.
The Commissioners placed deputy tax clerk Dan Whitesitt and Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg both in charge of opening and closing the treasurer’s office and managing the day to day operation. In discussion about getting the appropriate help during the administrative leave, Burrows pointed out that they could not exactly hire a new treasurer since they had one, she was just on leave. This is a problem, he said, because they need someone to do the treasurer’s job. They don’t have anyone on staff who can do it, he said.