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State Takes Over Investigation of Senator’s Arrest
Department of Justice will take over case against Republican Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge
HELENA – Red Lodge and Carbon County officials stepped back Wednesday from the investigation into a state senator charged with pushing his wife and fighting a police officer, saying they want to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The state Department of Justice will take over the case against Republican Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge, said Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon.

"Since all of the parties involved are familiar, our primary concern was to avoid any possible appearance of impropriety or favoritism," Nixon said. "That is not to say that the matter could not be handled fairly locally, but an acknowledgement that it is in all parties' best interest to take all precautions to ensure the matter is handled fairly and professionally."

Priest, 45, was arrested Saturday at a Red Lodge residence. A police citation says Priest pushed his wife and fought an officer who was attempting to arrest him.

Priest pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of partner or family assault and resisting arrest. He was released after posting a $1,500 bond.

Priest did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

John Barnes, spokesman for Attorney General Tim Fox, said the case has been assigned to Assistant Attorney General Mary Cochenour and the Division of Criminal Investigation.

Barnes said it is routine for a city or county to turn over a case to the state to avoid apparent conflicts of interest.

"Politics have nothing to do with this," he said. "This is purely a law enforcement thing."

Montana Senate President Jeff Essmann said this week he intended to ask Priest to step back from his legislative duties while the charges are pending.

Priest was elected in 2010 and is the chairman of the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee. He is not on any of the interim committees that are meeting between legislative sessions.
 
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