Lake County attorney pans poaching cases, investigator 

More than two years ago, Frank Bowen of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the state game warden to the Flathead Nation, launched an investigation of several law enforcement officers in Lake County who had allegedly poached game animals over the course of many years. This group of cops from different law enforcement agencies in Lake County was known as the "Coyote Club." As the investigation went on, Bowen received death threats; one, he says, referred to him "taking a dirt nap." He says he's been told by a state attorney that they can't guarantee his safety.

Recently, Lake County Attorney Mitch Young, who evidently also wants Bowen to drop the poaching cases, questioned Bowen's credibility and requested that Bowen himself be investigated, a move that's hampered the potential prosecution of the alleged poachers.

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In February of this year, FWP sent the poaching case reports to the county attorneys in Lake, Flathead, Ravalli and Beaverhead counties, where the violations allegedly occurred, asking the attorneys to prosecute.

Young responded with a scathing rebuke of Bowen. In a March 1 email sent to FWP Chief of Law Enforcement Jim Kropp, and copied to the other three county attorneys, among others, Young said Bowen's case files were "poorly organized, relied almost exclusively on rumor and hearsay, contained irrelevant information and included accusations that Bowen knew were not true." Young said the files were "so inadequate and clearly devoid of probable cause that I could not in good faith waste the attorney general's resources by forwarding the case files for further review." He concluded by saying that until he sees the results of an investigation into Bowen's conduct, "the Lake County Attorney's Office will not prosecute any cases that come out of Bowen's investigations."

So FWP conducted an investigation of Bowen. Missoula-based Warden Captain Jeff Darrah found Young's complaint to be without merit, exonerating Bowen.

But Bowen's having trouble disseminating the document that clears his nameā€”and that, he hopes, will compel the county attorneys to proceed with prosecution.

The Montana Legislature's Law and Justice Interim Committee held a hearing June 22 on allegations of misconduct among Lake County law enforcement officers, which go well beyond poaching. The committee subpoenaed Bowen to testify. FWP Chief Legal Counsel Rebecca Jakes Dockter joined him. The agency worried that whatever Bowen might say could include confidential criminal justice information. "It's quite a minefield that I have to walk to avoid breaking the law myself," Bowen told the committee.

That minefield included whether Bowen could give the committee a copy of the document that cleared him of wrongdoing. Dockter and Sen. Jim Shockley, a Republican from Victor who chairs the committee, squabbled over the issue. Shockley said he'd "never heard of a complaint being public but the dismissal secret."

The document includes confidential criminal justice information, with names and details of alleged poaching violations, so, Dockter said, FWP can't release it. But Bowen, she said, "can give whatever he'd like to whomever he'd like to show that he's been exonerated," as long as the confidential criminal justice information is redacted.

The Independent filed an open records request to obtain the document exonerating Bowen. Dockter rejected the request last week, again saying "Bowen may choose to share this information if he so desires."

But Bowen says he can't. "My chain of command has told me that I cannot give that out, and to do so would be disobeying a direct order from my chain of command. So while they're telling you I can give it out, they're telling me, 'Not even at gunpoint.'"

Kropp, FWP's chief of law enforcement, says that order didn't come from him. Bowen's supervisor, Jim Satterfield, was unavailable for comment.

"I'm a little frustrated that they don't want it to get out, for whatever reasons," Bowen says.

What he can share is a memo from Satterfield, dated April 23. "Captain Darrah's thorough investigation revealed no basis for Lake County Attorney Mitch Young's allegations of misconduct on your part," Satterfield wrote. "I also find no culpability. In short, Mr. Young's complaint was without merit."

Young had said he was waiting for the investigation of Bowen to be completed before prosecuting the poaching cases. Bowen hopes Young will do so now.

Kropp, for one, says that's "not likely." When Kropp sent Young the findings of the Bowen investigation on April 6, he expressed to Young his concern with the enforcement of fish and game laws. "I know from both historical and first-hand experience that there is a direct correlation between such enforcement and protection of and impact on the wildlife Montanans value. Given that connection, I ask that you and your office commit to the system that allows FWP officers to present case reports for your review and overall commitment to cases you deem supported by probable cause."

Kropp says Young didn't respond. Asked if he believes that means Young won't prosecute, Kropp says, "That's the way I take it."

Young didn't return a call seeking comment.

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