Strange days 

Ravalli County's accounting mess is no laughing matter

Three weeks ago, embattled treasurer Valerie Stamey announced that she had uncovered a criminal conspiracy among Ravalli County commissioners. She dropped this bombshell at a meeting where she was supposed to explain why her office had not produced a monthly financial report since September.

Stamey did not have any reports, nor did she mention them. She accused Commissioners JR Iman and Greg Chilcott of illegally selling tax liens, and then she left. Fortunately, Tea Party activist, stalking-horse Democrat and independent researcher of "drunk Indians" Jan Wisniewski was there to hand out printed copies of Stamey's remarks.

The now-suspended treasurer has refused to speak to reporters ever since. She did, however, describe the alleged conspiracy to a meeting of the South Valley Pachyderm Club. You can watch a video of her 90-minute address on YouTube, and I urge you to do so—both for sheer force of incoherency and because of the strange moment that happens 32 seconds in.

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  • Alex Sakariassen

Stamey begins her remarks with the Lord's Prayer. When she gets to the part about "thy will be done on Earth," she looks up and adds, "that's where we are right now." It's a weird kind of joke, and nobody laughs. When they don't, Stamey finishes up the prayer and spends the next hour and a half explaining herself.

Her explanation does not make a lot of sense, and we will not try to unravel it here. Better forensic accountants than I will spend the next several weeks doing that. I'm more interested in the joke, and what it says about the strangest figure in the strangest story to emerge from Ravalli County in years.

Who takes religion seriously enough to open with the Lord's Prayer but lightly enough to ad lib a joke midway through? I submit that the answer is "an extraordinarily impulsive person." It explains why Stamey said whatever popped into her head even as she was leading a roomful of skeptical Republicans in prayer, and it explains the bizarre details the public has learned about her over the last few weeks.

For example, we know that Stamey had no background in managerial accounting before she was made treasurer. County commissioners appointed her in a 3-2 vote over Ravalli tax lead Linda Isaacs. Ostensibly, Stamey got the job for her "enthusiasm," but her main qualification seemed to be that she was a Republican precinct captain active in Tea Party politics.

Immediately after she took office, the treasury stopped producing monthly reports. Several longtime employees quit after complaining that she was unqualified, while Stamey herself lambasted her coworkers for refusing to show her how the office operated. Last week, after she was placed on leave, auditors found more than $800,000 in undeposited property tax checks from November and December.

It all suggests that Stamey simply was not doing her job, apparently because she did not know how. Why, then, did she apply in the first place? Even such an enthusiast as she would have to realize that being the county treasurer would involve some heavy accounting. But she took the job anyway, and consequences be damned.

It's the same mindset that might lead a person to, for example, double-cash a home refinance check. Shortly after the treasury became so backlogged that Ravalli County fire departments began to run out of money, the Bitterroot Star reported that Stamey had suffered a default judgment in Greenville County, S.C., for cashing the same $18,000 check by mail and by phone.

Stamey had moved to Montana by the time that judgment was levied. A few months later, she took out a mortgage on her South Carolina home and subsequently defaulted. It seems odd that a person would take out a mortgage she couldn't afford on a home in which she no longer lived. As in the check-cashing fiasco, the consequences seem both disastrous and inevitable. But Stamey could not resist the easy money, the cash in hand.

Maybe that kind of impulsive behavior is what led her to appear before the Ravalli County commission not with a report on the progress of her office, but with news of a vast, ill-defined criminal conspiracy. We don't know. It's possible that the woman who has not produced a treasurer's report since she took office looked at the books and saw something no one else did, but it seems unlikely.

It's more likely that Stamey is saying what she can to draw her salary and put off disaster a little while longer. That is what the pattern of these last few weeks suggests. What's baffling is not why Stamey acts the way she does but why the Ravalli commission didn't see it coming.

They put an erratic person in charge of the county's money, and she has produced the most entertaining scandal in recent memory. She also may have cost taxpayers thousands of dollars and brought in the FBI to investigate her allegations. Ravalli County's finances are in disarray, and it is not the impulsive Stamey so much as the irresponsible commission who is to blame. That's where we are right now.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and lying at His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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