Someone impersonating the Missoula Board of County Commissioners sent a forged letter to the U.S. State Department claiming the commission was yanking its support for refugee resettlement in Missoula.
The Missoula County Sheriff's Office confirms it is investigating the document, which used an image of official county letterhead and appears to be signed by all three commissioners. Brenda Bassett, MCSO public information officer, says detectives are trying to determine both the letter's author and the intent behind its creation.
Impersonating a public official is a crime under Montana law punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
County officials became aware of the letter's existence Wednesday after Mayor John Engen forwarded a copy to Commissioner Stacy Rye, Communications Director Anne Hughes says.
The brief letter, which Rye provided to the Indy
, states the commission "rescinds
our offer of support to resettle refugees in Missoula" and orders the opening of a resettlement office to be suspended.
"Our community members have expressed a tremendous amount of concern and will not support Middle Eastern refugees here in Missoula," the letter continues. "After further review, we don't feel middle eastern cultures are compatible with our community values."
County commissioners in January endorsed
a then-pending petition to the U.S. Department of State by the International Rescue Committee to reopen a resettlement office in Missoula. Their support, along with that of Engen and most city council members, prompted some backlash around the region,
including a series of "American Security" rallies and opposition letters from county commissions in Ravalli and Flathead counties over fears of Islamic terrorism, particularly regarding refugees from Syria.
On March 18, the IRC announced its application was approved and said it plans to open an office later this year.
IRC officials inquired about the letter this week while in Missoula as the organization prepares to open its office in the next few months, Rye says. Her understanding is that federal officials and the IRC did not recognize the letter as fraudulent.
"This is serious," she says. "I'm particularly embarrassed that anyone would think we would do something like this."
It's unclear when the letter was sent to the federal government. The letter is dated Feb. 10, but a record-keeping code printed above the date matches that of a different, official county letter regarding a property regulation exemption sent to a private landowner. The commissioners' signatures, however, appear identical to those included on the original refugee resettlement letter, not the Feb. 10 document.
When the IRC's request was approved, the prospect that refugees placed in Missoula would actually originate from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria seemed slim, as Syrians make up a small portion of those currently entering the United States.
However, IRC officials now say resettlement of Syrians appears more likely. Most refugees who relocate to the U.S. are placed with relatives, but Missoula's fledgling program will likely draw from the roughly 30 percent of all arriving refugees who don't have U.S. family ties.
IRC officials explained the outlook during a Thursday reception hosted by local refugee advocate group Soft Landing Missoula. They told attendees the Missoula office expects initial arrivals may include Syrian families ranging in size from four to 10 individuals, Congolese families and single woman-headed households, Afghans or Rohingyas from Myanmar.
"We were kind of operating under the impression that there might not be a possibility of us getting Syrian refugees for quite a while, and that seems to have slightly shifted," Soft Landing founder Mary Poole said at the event, "... so that's really exciting because they were our catalyst."