Last year, investigators accused seven Lake County police officers of a range of dishonorable and criminal acts, including poaching, perjury, nepotism, ethics violations, false claims of military combat, and witness tampering and intimidation. The investigators moved to strip those officers of their badges.
As of last week, all seven cases have been resolved. One officer lost his badge. Of the other six, complaints were dismissed against three cops, two were issued minor sanctions and one was given a lengthy suspension.
The two primary investigators did not get off so easy. A Montana game warden and the director of the state agency that polices the police became the targets of smear campaigns that undermined their work exposing what the warden called a "culture of corruption" pervading law enforcement agencies in Lake County. Both left their positions—the warden was reassigned, while the director resigned under pressure.
The reputed mantra of the accused officers—that "you can't break the law if you are the law"—appears to ring as true today as when the investigations began more than three years ago.
In spring 2012, the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, or POST, the body that certifies and decertifies police, brought complaints against the seven Lake County officers. The Missoula Independent requested access to those complaints and related documents. Four of those requests landed in court. At issue was the officers' individual privacy versus the public's right to know their alleged offenses. Over the last several months, Helena District Court Judge Kathy Seeley followed established case law by ruling in favor of the public, writing in one of the orders, dated June 3, that the officer in question, "as a public employee in a position of public trust, may have less of a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the information that bears on his ability to perform public duties."
The judge's orders 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.
Seeley's orders, combined with three officers waiving their right to privacy, granted the Independent access to hundreds of documents—all of the evidence POST had compiled in bringing complaints against Lake County Lt. Mike Sargeant, Sgt. Dan Duryee and former Undersheriff Karey Reynolds; Polson Police Chief Wade Nash and Officer Cory Anderson; Ronan Police Chief Dan Wadsworth; and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Officer Jason Nash.
The evidence reveals an above-the-law culture in Lake County law enforcement agencies, described by POST counsel and assistant attorney general Sarah Hart as "utterly terrifying" and a present-day "wild, wild West."
But as troubling as the evidence itself is the lack of criminal charges. Lake County Attorney Mitch Young has declined to prosecute and thwarted any investigation of Lake County officers, to the point that he's been accused of breaking the law himself. The Montana Department of Justice has largely avoided intervention. And depositions given by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wardens suggest election-year politics surrounding former Attorney General Steve Bullock's successful campaign for governor in 2012 cut short the investigation of an organized poaching club because of how it may reflect on the state's chief law enforcement officer.
The onus of justice has fallen solely to POST, which is not a criminal justice agency but rather an administrative quasi-judicial board. The agency's power is limited to suspending or revoking an officer's badge—even if an officer is alleged to have committed a felony crime.
If some of the evidence lacks specificity to prosecute or revoke officers' badges, as state officials claim, the evidence nonetheless deepens the doubt over whether certain Lake County cops and officials entrusted with enforcing the law have abided by it themselves.
Over the course of nearly two years, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Game Warden Frank Bowen says he compiled 65 pounds of documents and recordings detailing what was known as the Coyote Club, a circle of Lake County officers who for a decade had allegedly poached deer, elk and other animals. The investigation was controversial. Bowen received death threats; one referred to the warden taking a "dirt nap." Some of the incidents Bowen investigated occurred in Flathead, Ravalli and Beaverhead counties, but the cases originated in Lake County.
In January 2012, five of Bowen's superiors, including FWP Regional Supervisor Jim Satterfield, met with Bowen about his investigations. During that meeting, Bowen was told—as he later recounted in a sworn deposition—that it was time to "wrap it up."
"What they asked," Bowen said, "is we try to slow down the pace for some of this stuff because it...was getting close to an election."
At the time, the attorney general, Steve Bullock, was running for governor. In Bowen's deposition, he spoke to his supervisors' concern that continuing his investigation would further highlight what some had called Bullock's inadequate oversight of the law enforcement agencies in Lake County. The attorney general's office generally defers to local prosecutors; if a county attorney or sheriff or chief of police doesn't request an outside investigation, the state won't intervene. That policy held even after two FWP game wardens and two Lake County sheriff's deputies met with Bullock in January 2011 to present the wide-ranging allegations of misconduct involving Lake County cops and officials. Bullock's office said there wasn't enough evidence.
FWP Warden Captain Lee Anderson would later confirm, also in a sworn deposition, that Bowen's investigations were cut short because of what Anderson called "political stuff." He said, "There was a lot of press, a lot of publicity...and so they wanted to see us wrap this thing up as quick as we can to get it done."
The Independent first reported on Bowen's investigations in a December 2011 feature story.
Bowen quickly finalized his poaching case reports and, in February 2012, passed them to Mitch Young and the other county attorneys.
Bowen didn't expect that his investigations would make him a target of Lake County's prosecutor and the state, but that's what happened.
Young pilloried Bowen. The county attorney emailed Jim Kropp, FWP's chief of law enforcement, among several others, saying 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." He also called the files "inadequate and clearly devoid of probable cause." Young declared that "the Lake County Attorney's Office will not prosecute any cases that come out of Bowen's investigations" until the state launched a separate investigation into Bowen's conduct. The other county attorneys in Flathead, Ravalli and Beaverhead counties also sat on Bowen's cases.
FWP granted Young's request and Missoula-based Warden Captain Jeff Darrah conducted an investigation of Bowen in March 2012. Darrah found Young's accusations meritless and intended solely to impede Bowen's investigative efforts. But FWP wouldn't release Darrah's report exonerating Bowen because the agency said it contained confidential criminal justice information. Withholding the report worked to further delay potential prosecution during the 2012 election season.
The Montana Legislature's Law and Justice Interim Committee subpoenaed Bowen to testify about his poaching investigations at a June 2012 hearing at the Montana Capitol. The day before the hearing, Bowen was summoned to meet in Kalispell with FWP Regional Supervisor Satterfield and Warden Captain Anderson. During the meeting, as Bowen later claimed in a grievance before the state Board of Personnel Appeals, Satterfield made "several verbal comments intended to intimidate Warden Bowen into an altered testimony." Bowen said Satterfield's motivations were political, quoting Satterfield in the complaint as saying, "Are you willing to fall on your sword just to make the Democratic Party look bad?" Bowen also said Satterfield told him to "ride for the brand" and "do what you're told or there could be consequences." Satterfield reportedly said, "This isn't about ethics or doing the right thing. It is about your survival." Warden Captain Anderson, in his deposition, corroborated that Satterfield said statements to this effect.