Caught up in a quirk of the law, the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) is poised to temporarily give $1.1 million to controversial Flathead Valley broadcaster John Stokes for a right-of-way the state says is worth only $100,500.
The action comes as part of a condemnation lawsuit MDT filed last year against Stokes, his Z-600 Inc., Skyline Broadcasters Inc., and Questa Resources Inc., a private Bigfork firm that arranged a $655,000 loan to Stokes so he could buy the KGEZ-AM business two years ago. The radio station sits along Highway 93 just south of Kalispell.
Also named in the condemnation action, according to Flathead County District Court records, are five investors—Missoula dentist Doug Hadnot, Lolo residents William and Sandra Mytty, and Missoula residents J. Chriss and Myrna Crawford—and three employee retirement funds that fronted the money for Stokes to get started.
The pension funds include one that was tied to former Missoula attorney Sam Haddon, who was appointed last year to a federal judgeship in Great Falls. The other retirement-fund investors are the Missoula-based Quality Supply Inc. and Dr. Stephen S. Ellis, a former Bitterroot Valley surgeon. Since his emergence as a radio personality, Stokes has drawn fire for his strident and often spurious attacks on conservationists, federal land managers, “liberal” political activists and area businesses that support conservation causes. His morning talk show, “The Edge,” attracts an array of callers who occasionally advocate harassment and even violence against environmentalists and other who don’t share their views.
Stokes, a past state legislative candidate, has also been known to walk a fine line on racial issues. Last January he and an employee bantered on the air about retailers having sheet sales in honor of the late Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, a less-than -subtle reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Stokes, who routinely labels conservationists “Green Nazis,” also suggested raising a Confederate flag to honor the black civil rights activist.
Court records show that MDT has known for years that a sliver of KGEZ-AM property would be needed for an ongoing Highway 93 expansion project. An agency appraisal set the price of the land, plus payment for landscaping, parking lot repairs and building depreciation, at $100,500.
But documents show Stokes claimed last fall that the state actually owes him $2.5 million, in part because he said the station building and tower would need to be relocated when the highway is rebuilt. He also alleged that work already completed on highway reconstruction damaged his radio transmitter, as well as computer equipment inside the building.
In response to the claim, MDT planners moved the alignment of the closest traffic lane about a yard to the west, trimming the amount of land needed from Stokes from 0.30 of an acre to only 0.13 of an acre. The state still agreed to pay Stokes $100,500 for the right-of-way, even though the amount of property to be taken was reduced.
The move, however, prompted allegations from Stokes and Wade Dahood, his Anaconda-based attorney, that state officials were trying to “punish and retaliate” against Stokes and illegally coerce him into settling the dispute. After receiving an unfavorable ruling from Judge Katherine Curtis, Stokes and Dahood reduced their claim to $1.1 million.
Records show that Stokes was paid the $100,500 last November in return for immediate access to his property, which would keep the long-awaited reconstruction project from coming to a halt. The payment was made as part of an agreement that says Stokes reserves the right to fight for more right-of-way money while the highway work continues.
But in a surprise move, Dahood recently demanded that the state immediately pay the full $1.1 million to Stokes. The demand was made under a rarely used state law that says agencies with the power to condemn property must pay the full amount of a landowner’s claim up front in a contested case. Surprisingly, the law does not require that the landowner’s claim be held in any type of protective account, and there are no built-in restrictions on claimants spending the money before a settlement is reached, state officials confirm.
Court records show that on June 10, the state sent Stokes a check for $250,000. Under a tentative agreement with MDT attorneys, however, the remaining $850,000 is to be given to Dahood for deposit into an interest-bearing account. A mediated negotiating session to try to settle the final terms of the right-of-way took place Monday. State officials say another round of talks is set for Aug. 5.
Along with the condemnation action, court records show Stokes and his companies are also embroiled in another Flathead County lawsuit over an easement where his radio tower and other equipment are located. In that case, Douglas and Ruth Anderson sued Stokes alleging he violated terms of an agreement by failing to properly maintain the equipment and failing to bury all connected cables and conduits, among other charges.
Stokes has so far denied the allegations and argues that the Andersons are stirring up trouble because they know a cash settlement is pending over the Highway 93 frontage.
“Plaintiff have unclean hands and ulterior motives for filing this action for their personal financial gain at the expense of [Stokes’] investment,” reads one document filed by Kalispell attorney Evan Danno. Trial in the easement case is set for Nov. 25.