Hide and seek 

Flathead campaign rumors prove elusive

Ever since the Flathead County Sheriff’s race began, references to a supposed “smear campaign” designed to discredit candidate John Weaver have appeared in numerous letters to the editor printed in Flathead Valley newspapers. Oddly, the references seem to have been made exclusively by Weaver supporters.

“Character assassination has no place in Flathead County but seems to have found a place in this race,” wrote Flathead County Commissioner Gary Hall in a letter published in the May 11 Whitefish Pilot.

Weaver also addresses dirty campaigning tactics, vaguely, in a section of his website titled “Politics?”

The county sheriff’s race is being run between three Republicans. No other party has fielded a candidate; whoever wins the primary will most likely take office. Two of the candidates, Mike Meehan and Bruce Parish, have each been with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office for 14 years. Meehan currently serves as undersheriff, Parish as a detective commander.

Weaver, an outsider, has worked in the Flathead as president and CEO of Hope Ranch, a Flathead Valley treatment facility for troubled girls, and taught law-enforcement classes at Flathead Valley Community College. Before moving to the Flathead, Weaver worked in detention and dispatch on the East Coast. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Central Missouri State University.

The valley’s first hint as to just what Weaver is allegedly being smeared with didn’t show up until the May 13 edition of the Daily Inter Lake, in a story about a May 11 sheriff candidates forum in Whitefish.

At that forum, a Kila woman and former Hope Ranch employee named Debbie McPherson reportedly asked Weaver why he resigned his position as president and CEO of Hope Ranch in late 2003.

Weaver answered, according to the paper, “This is an important issue that I’ve been plagued with for some time, and I want people to know the truth.”

Weaver then told a convoluted story about a former program director and her husband, without identifying them by name, who he said tried to smear him in an attempt to lure clients away to a similar treatment center that would compete with Hope Ranch.

Weaver said he resigned to protect the integrity of Hope Ranch.

In an effort to learn more about the alleged smear campaign, the Independent contacted Debbie McPherson.

McPherson was reluctant to elaborate on the question she posed to Weaver at the forum, but she did mention a line that appeared in the Sept. 18, 2003 Inter Lake’s crime blotter, which read: “An assault was reported at Hope Ranch.”

That single sentence, it turns out, references an incident in which Weaver was accused of assault by two Hope Ranch residents. The detective in the case, Bruce Parish (who happens to be running against Weaver), and the county attorney’s office determined that there was no basis for filing criminal charges.

The Hope Ranch would not confirm Weaver’s actual date of resignation, citing privacy concerns, but according to its website, Linda Carpenter took over as executive director of the treatment center on Oct. 16, 2003.

In an attempt to learn whether the investigation and the resignation were connected, the Independent asked current Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont for the investigative file on the case. The sheriff referred our query to the county attorney’s office, which asked for a formal written request for the file, which was provided.

Typically, according to Helena freedom of information lawyer Robin Meguire (who represents the Independent, through the Montana Newspaper Association, in our effort to obtain Weaver’s investigative file), the county attorney’s office itself would weight the public’s right to know against privacy concerns in deciding whether to release an investigative file. But more and more often, she says, such requests are being handed off to judges.

That’s what happened with the Independent’s request, now a civil complaint, with Flathead County as the plaintiff and the Independent and John Weaver as defendants. The complaint gives both the Independent and Weaver opportunities to state opinions as to whether or not the document should be released to a judge for consideration.

According to state law, Weaver has 20 days to respond to the complaint, giving him until June 7, the day after the election.

To try to expedite the process, the Independent contacted Weaver to ask if he would voluntarily waive his right to privacy, allowing for the document’s release.

On the morning of May 19, such a waiver seemed a likely outcome. “I have nothing to hide,” Weaver told the Independent. But, he said, “Before I give a carte blanche release, I want to see what’s there.”

Things had changed by the time the Daily Inter Lake contacted Weaver for a front-page Sunday story about the Independent’s request for the report.

Weaver has now hired Whitefish lawyer Jack Quatman and plans to wait his full allotted 20 days before responding to the complaint. He’s also decided to lump the Independent’s standard request for a public document into the conspiracy he alleges is playing out, at his expense, in the sheriff’s race.

“It is exactly the same thing that has been going on since this campaign began,” Weaver told the Daily Inter Lake. “It’s gone beyond a smear campaign. Smear campaigns are legal.”

The article goes on to say that Weaver is now reluctant to release the document to a reporter he does not know, who could take it out of context.

The Independent has answered the civil complaint and requested the judge shorten the 20-day response time due to the imminence of the election.

When the Independent spoke with Weaver May 19, he blamed the supposed smear campaign on Flathead County Undersheriff Mike Meehan, one of his opponents.

“The bottom line is Mike’s experience can’t stand up to mine, and he doesn’t have the education or the experience that I do, so they’ve adopted the policy of a smear campaign to try and even the playing field,” Weaver said.

Weaver admits, however, that he has no evidence of the campaign he alleges is being orchestrated by an opponent who, should Weaver be elected, would be working with him as undersheriff.

Meehan denies Weaver’s accusations.

“I have no interest in his personal life,” Meehan told the Independent. “If he has skeletons in his closet, then that’s his problem.”

Just before press time, Gary Miller, chairman of the Hope Ranch board, called the Independent to say that, “From the board’s point of view,” there was nothing about the incident damaging to Weaver.

By deadline, there had been no judgement on the Independent’s request to expedite a ruling.

ppeters@missoulanews.com

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