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  Comments (0) Total Wednesday Apr. 16, 2014
 
An Unusual Raid
Lake County Investigations
Two years ago, following an especially nasty local election season, I sat on a panel in Whitefish with then Political Practices Commissioner Dennis Unsworth. I was a bit out of my element, but I did learn something about the agency responsible for refereeing state campaigns: It lacks any sort of teeth.

In the audience that night were local lawmakers who said they had tried to strengthen campaign laws in previous Legislatures but met resistance from fellow politicians who were reluctant to give the office any more power. Thus, investigations move slowly and allegations are hard to prove. Those found breaking the rules are often slapped on the wrist and, at the time, Unsworth said he had never verified a single libel complaint. It’s the system we have, made more lax by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to remove limitations on corporate political spending.

Which brings me to Terry Leonard, a former sheriff’s deputy in Lake County.

In the run-up to the 2010 election, Leonard made numerous accusations against his former employer, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. He set up a website and said he considered the department corrupt. Much of his criticism was aimed at sheriff candidate Jay Doyle.

A complaint was filed by Lanny Van Meter, the treasurer for Doyle’s campaign, with the commission of political practices. It accused Leonard of illegally operating a political action committee with Steve Kendley, an independent candidate for sheriff, which would have required Leonard registering a PAC (Leonard said he was acting alone).

It’s common for similar grievances to be filed in heated elections, but often little is settled until after the ballots are cast. But Lake County officials decided to take a far more drastic step. The county attorney, Mitch Young, obtained a warrant from District Judge C.B. McNeil and deputies raided Leonard’s home on Sept. 30, 2010 and seized his computers, electronic storage devices and printed emails.

At the time, Lake County officials explained it was all part of an “ongoing investigation,” which made it sound like Leonard was part of something serious. In truth, though, it’s hard to imagine prosecutors ever charging him with more than a misdemeanor, which rarely results in deputies raiding your house.

Leonard’s website was shut down and a few weeks later Doyle won the election.

In February of this year, Leonard got his computers back. The county attorney said the investigation into “violations against the election campaign laws” – you know, the job of the commission of political practices office, which said it had “nothing to do with the search and seizure” – was still ongoing.

Even if Lake County officials were hoping to charge Leonard with criminal defamation, his attorney pointed out in an interview with the Missoula Independent: “I have never seen a search warrant for investigating a misdemeanor.”

Last month, Montana Commissioner of Political Practices David Gallik ruled that Leonard had done nothing wrong and found that “there is insufficient evidence to find that Leonard violated Montana’s statue prohibiting anonymous election material based on his First Amendment right to anonymous political speech.”

Since then, numerous documents obtained by this newspaper and others have validated at least some of Leonard’s claims. Right now, there are two open investigations, one by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and another by the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council, into allegedly illegal and unethical activities by Lake County law enforcement officers.

On its face, it appears that Lake County officials were attempting to silence Leonard to protect themselves from incriminating information, some of which had some merit. But at the least, Leonard, who in many ways was portrayed as a loose cannon and a disgruntled former employee, deserves some vindication.
 
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