News in review 

A look back at the events that helped define 2013

Sexual assault investigations

National media turned its focus to Missoula in February to cover the trial of Jordan Johnson, the University of Montana’s star quarterback accused of raping a fellow student. The New York Times, ESPN, Wall Street Journal and others followed the proceedings inside a makeshift courtroom setup at the Holiday Inn downtown to accommodate the crowds. At the end of the 12-day trial, which included detailed testimony from the alleged victim about the night in question, the jury found Johnson not guilty. Days later, he rejoined the football team and helped lead the Griz to a 10-3 record and the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Johnson emerged as the face of an issue that plagued the university for the better part of two years, but appears to have finally come to a close. At a May 9 press conference, representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Office revealed findings from a yearlong investigation into UM’s handling of sexual assaults. With UM President Royce Engstrom in attendance, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin announced that the DOJ and the Department of Education found that the university had a “significant problem” in the way it handled sexual assault complaints. One week later, the DOJ described additional problems at the Missoula Police Department, specifically noting “deficiencies” that compromised the “effectiveness of sexual assault investigations from the outset.”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • UM President Royce Engstrom speaks at a May 9 press conference announcing the conclusion of the Department of Justice’s investigation into the university’s handling of sexual assault complaints. The DOJ concluded that there was a “significant problem” with UM’s procedures and training.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 ensures men and women the equal right to education. Public institutions that harbor a climate of sexual violence against women, therefore, are in violation of the law. In exchange for being absolved of legal liability, UM and the police department agreed to sweeping changes in the way they investigate sex crimes, including additional training for police and UM security on how to investigate sexual assault.

While UM and the police department pledged full cooperation with the federal government, the county attorney’s office has steadfastly refused. It remains to be seen if the DOJ will file a lawsuit seeking to compel the attorney’s office to cooperate.

Slap on the wrist

Sexual assaults at UM weren’t the only issue that attracted the attention of national investigators. In July, the National Collegiate Athletic Association released findings from an 18-month investigation into that university’s athletic department. The report detailed extra benefits provided to members of the football team and found that the administration and former head football coach failed to properly monitor the program. For all of its work on the case, the NCAA hit UM with relatively minor penalties: a three-year probation period, scholarship reductions, a vacation of wins and a reduction in the number of undergraduate student assistant positions.

Many of the rule violations cited in the NCAA report stemmed from the fallout of an October 2011 house party during which Missoula police officers used a stun gun on and arrested UM football players Trumaine Johnson and Gerald Kemp. Details of the house party were limited both at the time of the arrests and in the NCAA’s report, but those involved spoke with the Independent in August to tell their side of the story.

“I didn’t touch the cop,” Kemp said.

Kemp and his grandfather, George Kemp, who was on the phone with his grandson when he was hit with the stun gun, accused police officers of using unnecessary force and potentially singling out black football players at the party. “What they did was an act of racism,” George Kemp said, “because they used (force) against the black kids, and they didn’t do anything of that type to any of the white kids.”

The Kemps have threatened to file a civil suit against the Missoula Police Department. George Kemp told the Independent this month that the family still intends to pursue the case. “We know who the culprits are,” he said.

Hectic in Helena

The 63rd Montana Legislature convened in Helena at the beginning of the year with many holding out hope that this year would prove less partisan than 2011. Not two days in, more than 100 Native American activists with the Canadian-born movement Idle No More were protesting outside the Capitol in support of a host of social-justice issues. Within a month Montanans were seeing some familiar battles being waged across the aisle, from aid in dying to parental consent for minors seeking abortions. And the bill that got the most early attention? It legalized salvaging roadkill.

While not nearly as dysfunctional as 2011, the 2013 legislative session did find itself bogged down in entrenched partisanship. Republicans successfully pushed a measure attacking same-day voter registration through both the House and Senate, only to see Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock veto it. Democrats tried hard to expand Medicaid coverage to poor and uninsured Montanans, but House Republicans proved too powerful. The GOP even suffered from rampant infighting within its own caucus, an ideological split that carried beyond the session.

In the end, one of the most high-profile symbols of bipartisanship came in the form of a bill cracking down on dark money, crafted by Bullock and Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo. It passed the Republican-controlled Senate, but the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, promptly killed it.

An unlikely ally

Nobody, not even Republican Rep. Duane Ankney himself, anticipated his emotional April 9 testimony on the floor of the House of Representatives. The retired coal miner from Colstrip choked up when talking about why lawmakers should repeal a portion of the state’s deviate sexual conduct code, which classified gay sex as a crime akin to bestiality.

“I didn’t think about TV cameras, I didn’t think about a goddamn thing like that,” Ankney told the Independent. He simply thought, “Enough is enough.”

In 1997, the Montana Supreme Court found unconstitutional a state statute that made gay sex a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Despite the ruling, Republican lawmakers shot down attempts by gay rights activists to scrub the law from the books during nearly every legislative session that followed.

The activists’ persistence finally paid off this year, when Missoula Democratic Sen. Tom Facey’s Senate Bill 107, which sought to remove the homosexual acts portion of the state’s deviate sexual conduct law, passed both chambers of the legislature. It was Ankney who helped it through the House when he broke from his Republican colleagues and spoke in favor of SB 107 on the House floor. His voice cracked as he explained that his daughter is a lesbian. “To say she is any less of a person, or she is a criminal for her lifestyle, really upsets me. And for anybody that would feel that way—upsets me,” Ankney said, pointing at the other lawmakers. “I don’t think God thinks any less of my daughter than he does of any one of you in here.”

Nine days later, Gov. Bullock signed the bill inside the Capitol rotunda. At a celebration that followed, partygoers wore Duane Ankney T-shirts, portraying an image of the Republican with his ever-present wide-brimmed hat and walrus mustache.

All politics is local

On the local level, voters ushered in a new crop of progressive representation to the Missoula City Council on Election Day. First-time candidates Bryan von Lossberg, Jordan Hess, Emily Brock Bentley and Annelise Noelle Hedahl—all of whom were endorsed by the Missoula Democratic Party—won their races. Incumbents Marilyn Marler and Jon Wilkins also retained their seats, as did popular Mayor John Engen, who faced challengers on the ballot for the first time since 2005.

The current council finished an eventful year by passing a controversial ban on sitting, sleeping, lying and panhandling on city streets. That ordinance followed a drawn-out debate on handling accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. The next council will face a similar range of local issues, none bigger than Engen’s pledge to purchase Mountain Water Co.

The most contested race of this year’s local elections involved the battle for Municipal Court judge. Incumbent Kathleen Jenks took 45 percent of the vote to Mark McLaverty’s 41 percent. A third challenger, Leta Womack, garnered 14 percent.

Voters also supported the Missoula Urban Transportation District Levy to generate $1.7 million annually through an increase on property taxes. The money will be used to beef up bus service, which left Mountain Line Executive Director Michael Tree excited on Election Night. “The ridership is going to go berserk,” he said.

Money matters

It was a rough year at UM, and the problems eventually landed on the university’s bottom line. In spring, rumors started to fly about devastating budget cuts. Sections of some courses were temporarily blocked out as students prepared to register for fall classes. Adjuncts began to see their duties shrinking, and rightly feared they’d be high on the chopping block.

The administration wound up enacting an $8.6 million across-the-board budget cut—far less than first suspected—but faculty members still rallied outside Main Hall in late April in protest.

The story continued to unfold this fall as UM reduced the budget by an additional $2.9 million, prompting one group of tenured professors to speak out against how the administration is handling the crisis. Mehrdad Kia spearheaded an open meeting for the faculty and public in November to address what he called an “atmosphere of fear” hanging over the campus when it comes to speaking out against Main Hall’s actions.

“The knife has come to the bone,” Kia told the November crowd.

Things are expected to get worse before they get better. UM projects another $3 million in possible cuts by spring 2014.

Despite the budget issues, UM did succeed in settling on a location for the new Missoula College building on East Broadway. The Montana Legislature approved $29 million in funding for the building, and the university is required to match that funding with an additional $3 million.

Lake County chaos

This year the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, wrapped up its inquiry of seven Lake County cops accused of a litany of dishonorable and criminal acts. The quasi-judicial board, which certifies police officers, decertified only one of the cops it investigated, Dan Duryee, formerly of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, who lied about serving in the military. It also suspended Ronan Police Chief Dan Wadsworth, accused of nepotism and falsifying documents, for 15 years.

The other five officers, despite facing a range of allegations including poaching, perjury, ethics violations and witness tampering and intimidation, saw the complaints against them dropped or were issued minor sanctions.

The Indy published POST’s evidence against the officers in July, a year after the newspaper filed document requests under the Montana Public Records Act. Those requests landed in court. At issue was the officers’ individual privacy versus the public’s right to know their alleged offenses. Helena District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of the public. The decision set a new precedent of transparency for POST, which had lacked policy on whether files detailing complaints against peace officers are public record. Now they are.

In addition to the details of the alleged offenses, the hundreds of documents released to the Indy, combined with many more subpoenaed as part of a federal suit alleging organized crime within the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, revealed the extent to which key officials at virtually every level of government went out of their way to thwart the investigations. The two primary investigators—the former POST director and a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game warden—became the targets of smear campaigns and left their positions; the POST director resigned under pressure, while the warden was reassigned.

The warden, Frank Bowen, was told by his superiors in mid-2012 to cut short his poaching investigation, which implicated several Lake County officers, because of election-year politics. At the time, Attorney General Steve Bullock, who had been criticized for failing to intervene in Lake County, was in the middle of a successful campaign for governor. Before a legislative committee hearing at which Bowen was called to testify, FWP Regional Supervisor Jim Satterfield threatened to fire Bowen if he said too much, and told him, “Are you willing to fall on your sword just to make the Democratic Party look bad?” FWP acknowledged the threat and gag order when it settled a grievance Bowen filed.

As for the federal suit alleging organized crime, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula dismissed it in September.

Fire on the mountain

Two major fires blackened Missoula’s skies this summer as part of the fifth most expensive firefighting year on record.

The Lolo Creek Complex, which began Aug. 18 and burned 10,902 acres, burned within eyesight of the entire Missoula valley. The fire destroyed nine structures, including four homes near Highway 12, and was named the nation’s top firefighting priority. The Forest Service ended up spending $13 million and deployed 1,000 firefighters and support personnel to contain the blaze.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Ben Bonesz, left, and Daniel Paladino of the Castle Fire Engine from White Sulphur Springs mop up a hillside Aug. 23 along Highway 12. The Lolo Creek Complex ended up burning 10,902 acres and destroying four homes.

The second major blaze was the Gold Pan Complex, which began July 16 and burned 43,215 acres. The fire started in Idaho and burned across the Idaho-Montana line, where as many as 1,200 firefighters battled it for months in and around the Bitterroot National Forest without much success. Rain and snow finally stifled the fire in early October. The Forest Service spent more than $11 million trying to manage the blaze.

Overall, large wildfires burned more than 100,000 acres in Montana this year, and federal and state agencies spent more than $74 million on fire suppression in the state. Nationwide, the federal government spent $1.74 billion on its firefighting efforts.

Beach back in prison

Barry Beach spent 18 months living in relative freedom after spending 29 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Then, on May 14, he received devastating news when a reporter told him that he was likely heading back to prison.

“I don’t understand,” he told the reporter. “I have to make some phone calls.”

In a 4-3 decision, the Montana Supreme Court reinstated Beach’s 100-year prison sentence for the 1979 murder of Kim Nees on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Beach served nearly three decades in prison—the sentence offered no chance of parole—for the murder, before a district court judge in 2011 found sufficient new evidence to warrant another trial. The Montana Attorney General’s Office appealed that decision to the Montana Supreme Court, which opined in the May 14 order that the new evidence was “primarily hearsay,” and insufficient to trigger a new court proceeding.

The Supreme Court’s decision inspired shock and anger among Beach’s many supporters. An online petition posted by Montanans for Justice calling upon the state to free Beach garnered more than 15,000 signatures. In September, Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit that works to free the wrongly convicted and a long time Beach champion, filed a clemency petition with the Montana Board of Parole and Pardons that seeks to make Beach immediately eligible for parole. That petition garnered 200 letters of support, including those from Sen. Jon Tester and former Sen. Conrad Burns. If the Board of Pardons approves Beach’s pending petition, he could become immediately eligible for parole.

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