By Michael Howell
Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey filed a lawsuit against auditor James Woy and the auditing firm Anderson Zurmuehlen, P.C. last February, over a statement included in Woy’s preliminary report to the County Attorney about the status of the Treasurer’s office.
Woy wrote: “At this point it is apparent the duties of the Ravalli County Treasurer were not properly executed and the state of the treasurer’s office was in disarray.”
Stamey filed suit, claiming libel and defamation, calling it “a false and unprivileged statement” that exposed her “to hatred, contempt, ridicule, obloquy” and caused her “to be shunned and avoided.”
In April, Stamey succeeded in getting the court to issue a subpoena against Ravalli County seeking a large amount of information, including the job descriptions of 23 county employees or positions, 10 contracts between various county departments, every office procedure or protocol in the Treasurer’s office, every monthly report issued by the Treasurer’s office to the Board of County Commissioners since 1995, every periodic report issued by all county departments since 1995, all bank account statements since 1995, all audit reports since 1995, all checks issued by the county since 1995 and every account settlement issued by the Treasurer’s office since 1995.
On May 1, 2014, the County moved the Court to quash or modify the subpoena and asked for sanctions against Stamey. They argued that the demand for documents was over-broad and was seeking information not related to the case, noting that the County is not even a party to the case. They argue that the cost of producing the thousands of pages of documents would be unduly burdensome on the taxpayer. They asked the judge to at least limit the request to information related to the time that Stamey served as Treasurer. They accused Stamey of using “back door” antics to get information to build some case unrelated to the one before the court.
Stamey’s response to the motion to quash appears to argue that the information being requested is relevant in that it shows a long history of “disarray” in the Treasurer’s office that she was being unduly blamed for due to the auditor’s statement and would be useful in determining the factual validity of her claims. Stamey’s attorney, Robert Myers, states in his brief that he forgot to qualify properly the scope of the discovery to inspection only and that they were not seeking copies of all the documents but simply to inspect them to determine what copies might be needed.
County Attorney Howard Recht states in his brief that Stamey “divulges her true motive in issuing the subpoena, which was to show that Ravalli County lacked checks and balances, transparency and oversight in the Treasurer’s office, matters entirely unrelated to the defamation suit.” He also notes that Stamey “acknowledged that she erred when, in her subpoena, she demanded: ‘YOU ARE HEREBY COMMANDED TO produce the below designated documents….’ She now admits she merely wished to inspect public documents, a right not requiring the County to respond to a subpoena.” He also argues that Woy’s statement was demonstrably true and privileged, in that it was an observation on the performance of the public office of Treasurer made in connection woht an investigation by the County Attorney. He calls it abundantly obvious that Stamey issued the subpoena to further an agenda not related to the litigation, which is improper.
Recht notes that Stamey went to great length to denigrate past Treasurers and the handling of County funds in general. In doing so, he says, she correctly observes that the minimum duties of the Treasurer are statutory, but then seeks to justify her apparently acknowledged failure to comply with the Treasurer’s duties by claiming there were no policies in place. He calls it patently illogical.
“It is, therefore, no help to her cause to try and transfer to others the blame for failures of the Treasurer’s office that occurred while she was in office,” wrote Recht. He again asks for sanctions.
In the meantime, Woy and Anderson Zurmuehlen petitioned the Court on May 22, for summary judgment on the libel suit. They claim that Stamey cannot prove that the statement about the state of the office was false “when she makes the same allegations regarding the state of the office in her own complaint.” They claim the law requires that defamatory statements be “specifically directed at the person claiming injury,” but that the statement at issue is directed at the state of the office, not at any particular person. They also argue that because it is a statement of opinion, “as opposed to a misstatement of facts,” it also doesn’t meet the requirements to sue. They argue that the statement was “absolutely privileged” because it was made to the Ravalli County Attorney/Auditor in an official proceeding authorized by law. They ask the judge to dismiss all the claims in their entirety.