By Michael Howell
Last Thursday, April 17, the Ravalli County Commissioners, following the advice of County Attorney Bill Fulbright, agreed to leave Treasurer Valerie Stamey on paid administrative leave at least until the auditors submit a final report concerning activities in the Treasurer’s office. Stamey was placed on administrative leave in January after refusing to answer any questions about a default judgment entered against her in a South Carolina Court for cashing the same $18,149 check twice and failing to make restitution. Instead of explaining the situation in South Carolina, Stamey delivered a list of allegations against Commissioners J.R. Iman, Greg Chilcott, Jeff Burrows and several other county employees, claiming corruption and other charges. Stamey was placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an independent investigation by retired Judge Nels Swandal into her allegations against county officials and an audit of the Treasurer’s office by the auditing firm Anderson ZurMuehlen & Co., PC.
On Thursday, Fulbright reviewed Swandal’s investigative report which found Stamey’s allegations against Iman to be without merit, no evidence of any missing files, and no substantial evidence of her other allegations. Swandal concluded that Stamey shared responsibility with other employees for the dysfunction at the office which led to the failure to make financial reports to various districts and offices in the county. He found that Stamey should have done more to resolve the issues since she sought the position in the first place and it was her responsibility.
In February, the Commissioners found the Treasurer was in default for failing to file 58 separate reports incurring a $500 fine for each delinquent report. On March 10, the Commissioners decided to file the lawsuit to collect the $29,000 in fines as required by law, but no suit was ever filed.
On Thursday, Fulbright explained that the delay in filing that lawsuit was connected to other issues and involved strategic legal considerations related to the possibility of other charges, such as official misconduct, that could lead to suspension of the Treasurer without pay.
Fulbright acknowledged that the Commissioners had authorized filing the lawsuit to collect the fines, but said, “We see that as part of a bigger picture.” He advised “prudence and caution” and suggested that it made sense to wait for the final audit report before taking any more steps. He said once the case to collect the fines was filed it would likely generate counter claims and raise other questions that the audit may provide some answers to. He said filing the suit to collect the fines was technically and legally possible, but would be premature considering the other factors and the larger picture that it involves.
Fulbright noted that he did not expect the audit report to change any of the findings related to the delinquent Treasurer reports but that it could lead to a premature inception of the other larger case dealing with allegations of potential misconduct that could lead to suspension of the Treasurer without pay.
He said that the cost of leaving Stamey on paid administrative leave for a few more months was a drop in the bucket compared to the potential costs involved in the long and expensive lawsuit that would grow out of that action.
“At a minimum we should get all the answers we can before moving forward,” said Fulbright.
Several members of the public spoke in favor of filing the lawsuit to collect the fines immediately. Some urged filing the charges of misconduct as well, since the failure to file the reports was evidence of misconduct.
Ren Cleveland said that it was like having a bad toothache.
“You don’t put things like that off,” said Cleveland. “If you have a bad toothache today and you don’t do anything about it, it’s going to hurt tomorrow just like it does today. Get rid of her.”
Laurie Riley of Corvallis said the issue of paying the Treasurer while on leave was very disturbing to the public and if nothing is done about it, it could lead the public to believe there is some sort of cover-up going on.”
Phil Tummarello said it made sense to be proceed with caution since the county could face some liability if Stamey proves that she was not negligent because other people prevented her from doing her job.
Some of the commissioners expressed frustration over the situation.
Commissioner Burrows suggested that if the commission is not going act against Stamey that it consider reinstating Stamey so it could at least get some benefit from the money she was being paid.
Commissioner Chilcott said he would not support that idea, saying he doubted that anyone on the board would have voted for her appointment had they known about the financial troubles she faced.
So far, according to Fulbright, close to $50,000 has been spent on the investigations, only about $3,000 going to Swandal and the rest going to the financial audit of the office which is still continuing. Stamey is receiving about $1,000 a week in pay while on leave for a total of about $20,000 to date. Fulbright had no estimation of how much longer the financial audit would take but it could be months.