Call it The Lund Affair. Or call it Bettygate. Regardless of what it’s called, the case of Ravalli County versus Betty Lund bears some striking similarities to Watergate: an audiotape with an entire section missing, surreptitiously taped conversations, a suspected office break-in, withheld documents.
Such are the allegations that have been lodged against Ravalli County’s embattled Clerk and Recorder Betty Lund, a 27-year county employee, a four-term elected official and Republican candidate for county commissioner.
Her chief accusers are Ravalli County Commissioners Jack Atthowe, Alan Thompson and Devon “Smut” Warren.
For the past year or more, the Board of County Commissioners has tried to haul Montana’s fastest-growing county out of the 19th century and into the 21st. Doing business with a wink and handshake worked well a century ago, but in the past decade, the county’s soaring population growth and the corresponding demand for more government services have forced the county’s managers to adopt a more sophisticated way of conducting the people’s business. But in the process of cleaning up an act that critics said had become sloppy and lazy, commissioners uncovered a host of problems which, they believe, can be traced back to one person: Lund.
The charges against Lund fall into two categories: administrative and political. Commissioners Atthowe, Warren and Thompson charge Lund with violating county policy by awarding bonuses to her employees in the middle of the fiscal year, after the budget had been adopted, and by ignoring county hiring procedures.
But those charges of administrative wrongdoing are largely housekeeping matters, best solved by a clear set of policies, as the commission’s attorney has recommended.
The political charges are far more serious. Lund stands accused of modifying county budgets for fiscal years 1999 and 2000 and by spending as much as $40,000 with neither the commissioners’ knowledge nor their approval. She has been charged with ordering her employees to secretly tape-record conversations with certain county employees and citizens; with entering Atthowe’s office after hours with unauthorized use of a master key; with violating the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to supply public documents to a private citizen; with entering into a contract for services with a Washington state company after county commissioners instructed her not to do so; with selling county property without the board’s authorization; and with altering the official audiotape recording of a public meeting.
Several weeks ago, the case came to a head. According to Dwain Erhart, the county’s information systems director, Erhart, at the direction of his boss, county Chief Administrative Officer Don Klepper, sent his assistant to retrieve CD-ROMs containing land transaction information such as deeds and certificates of survey. For reasons that remain unclear, Lund had the 37 CDs—all public information—locked in a vault near her office. Erhart knew the CDs were there and had planned to make copies to keep in his office for the general public, at Lund’s earlier request. But when Erhart’s assistant returned with the CDs, Lund insisted they be returned or else she would call the sheriff.
“I was puzzled to say the least,” said Erhart. “You won’t want to quote what I was really thinking.”
What he was really thinking, he said, was, “I don’t want to work in a place where I’m threatened.”
Though Lund said Erhart “misunderstood” her when she threatened to call the sheriff, the incident was the final straw for county commissioners. They ordered Klepper to compile a list of the various charges against her. He did so, and on Sept. 18, the board voted unanimously to send the complaints against Lund to the Montana Department of Justice for an investigation of official misconduct in office.
How did the board’s efforts to fix a government gone bad backfire so spectacularly?
Atthowe, a retired psychologist from Rutgers University, said the board bears some of the responsibility. He agrees that he and fellow commissioner Warren were intimidated into inaction by their former colleague on the board, Jerry Allen, now retired. In roughly the last two years of Allen’s 12-year tenure, he ruled the board by refusing to take action on matters demanding the board’s attention and by bullying Atthowe and Warren into a similar inactive mode, Atthowe agreed.
Into the leadership breach stepped Lund. “Whenever there was a void, she just took over,” Atthowe said.
But problems resulted when Lund continued steering the county ship long after the captains had set an entirely different course.
“We changed the paradigms,” said Klepper, using his favorite expression. “And with it comes some resistance because old ways die hard. ‘Close enough is good enough’ just doesn’t work now. We have to follow the rules.”
Klepper’s rules have clashed mightily with Lund’s. Where Lund hired two outside contractors with neither requests for proposals, bids nor service contracts, for example, Klepper insists on all those things. Where Klepper insists that public records be available for public viewing, Lund locks some documents up in a vault. Where Klepper suggests to commissioners that the public be charged reasonable fees for copying public documents, Lund tells Hamilton businessman Darwin Ernst that the fee for copying CD-ROM land transaction information is $2 million.
Lund, both defiant and cheery at the same time, either denies the charges against her outright, or justifies her actions.
She flatly denies charges that she ordered her employees to tape-record their conversations with Klepper, the county commissioners and their secretary Glenda Wiles. “I never said that,” she states. The commissioners, however, list three witnesses to Lund’s taping instructions to her employees: Wiles, Warren and Hamilton attorney Jennifer Boatwright.
She denies telling Ernst that the copying fees for CD-ROMs would be $2 million. She admits entering Atthowe’s office, but says she was only concerned for his well-being and wanted to check on him. (Nevertheless, since the incident, the commissioners have ordered that file cabinets be locked.) She did not amend the budget, she adds, because she had no way of accessing the accounting program. An independent auditor, however, found that Lund did have access to the software.
Lund also insists that all financial decisions, even hers, are ultimately approved by the Board of County Commissioners; whether the commissioners understood what they were signing off on is another issue, she says.
The only topic Lund does not address is the allegation that she locked up public documents.
Klepper and Alan Thompson, the newest member of the county commission, agree that the determination to steer Ravalli County away from its former bad habits has been upsetting to some. After he survived the steep learning curve that comes with the job of commissioner, Thompson began to assert himself on the board and suggested that a manager be hired. He wasn’t comfortable, he says, with the fact that Lund was managing the county’s day-to-day accounting because under her watch the county budget was running anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million in the red. “We were operating a checkbook without knowing what the balance was,” he said.
Though Atthowe and Warren initially resisted the idea of a manager, they eventually came around to Thompson’s way of thinking.
Klepper, who was eventually hired as chief administrative officer, took on one of the lowest-paying jobs in his working life, he said, because he relished the challenge of fixing a local government that was “fraught with problems and landmines.”
Together with the county’s other new hire, legal adviser Jim Mickelson, Klepper began to tighten up not only the county’s budget, but also its procedures for doing business.
“Most of the department heads have been very receptive to change,” Klepper said. “But some folks get very defensive and want to spend more time on the symptoms than on the cure.
“The most distasteful part of it to me is the personalization of the process. We needed to change the model and it should have been easy. But it was personalized. It was distorted at times. It was ugly.”
Lund charges that the commissioners, by turning over their list of complaints to the Department of Justice, are trying to “influence the outcome of the election.” She doesn’t elaborate, and stops short of saying that the board is trying to prevent her from being elected.
The investigation, which could result in her removal from office if she is convicted, doesn’t faze her. “It’s just a minor little bump in my life,” she says. “We need to get the truth out here.”