By Myers Reece, 4-23-12
||Caption: The Montana state capitol building in Helena. - File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
Representatives of three state agencies and boards with open investigations into alleged misconduct by Lake County law enforcement officers spoke at a legislative hearing in Helena last week, with the executive director of the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council asking for statutory changes to strengthen his council’s investigative authority.
Wayne Ternes, executive director of POST, told the Law and Justice Interim Committee that his organization could more efficiently investigate complaints if it had the powers of a criminal justice agency and could issue subpoenas at any time during its investigations rather than only at the hearing stage.
In past interviews, Ternes said POST has encountered resistance and a lack of cooperation from Lake County law officials during its multiple investigations into allegedly illegal and unethical behavior by officers there.
The POST council is a quasi-judicial board with 13 governor-appointed members in charge of training law enforcement officers in Montana. It serves as the police of the state’s police, investigating complaints of misconduct by officers, and has the power to revoke or suspend law certifications.
The council has opened a number of investigations into Lake County law enforcement and seven officers spread out across four departments have been served revocation notices. They are expected to receive hearings to determine whether any action should be taken, with the possibility of losing their law certification.
The April 20 hearing at the state capitol was held at the request of Law and Justice Interim Committee chairman Jim Shockley, a Republican senator from Victor who is running for attorney general. Shockley raised the issue at a December committee meeting after reading news reports of state investigations into Lake County law enforcement. The committee voted to hold a hearing.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a lengthy open investigation into poaching allegations among various Lake County law enforcement agencies. The Department of Justice has received 10 complaints concerning officers in the county and currently has three open investigations that could lead to charges, as revealed by Mike Batista at the hearing. Batista is the administrator of the DOJ’s division of criminal investigation.
The Beacon first reported the investigations in November after obtaining state investigative documents that revealed an alleged “culture of corruption” and “misguided brotherhood” within the Lake County law enforcement community, based off dozens of interviews that included sworn statements from current and former officers.
State investigations have turned up allegations of years of poaching by officers of multiple agencies; assault on fellow officers; witness tampering; an officer with no formal training being designated a sniper and member of the Special Response Team based on a false military record; document falsification; perjury; obstruction of justice and more.
At the hearing, the attorney general’s office pointed out that many of the complaints of misconduct coincided with a contentious sheriff’s election in 2010 that featured three members of the office running against each other.
Deputy Attorney General Ali Bovingdon said she attended the hearing voluntarily at the request of Attorney General Steve Bullock, not because of a subpoena. The Law and Justice Interim Committee, which consists of six state senators and six representatives, had discussed issuing subpoenas for members of FWP and the DOJ at an April 19 meeting.
The two agencies had initially indicated they wouldn’t send anybody to the hearing, but Batista and Bovingdon both ended up representing the DOJ while FWP Region 1 Warden Captain Lee Anderson spoke on behalf his agency.
Neither the DOJ nor FWP could discuss details of the investigations since they are ongoing, though Batista discussed DOJ investigative protocols in general. The justice department had sent the committee a letter outlining the agency’s concern about addressing ongoing criminal investigations.
Lake County Sheriff Jay Doyle and County Attorney Mitch Young were invited to attend but instead sent their attorney, Mike Sehestedt, based on Sehestedt’s advice.
Sehestedt told the legislative committee he advised his clients not to attend because of pending litigation involving Doyle. Five current and former members of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Doyle and three other officers accusing them of running a “criminal enterprise” and retaliating against officers who have tried to expose the corruption.
Two of the plaintiffs spoke at the hearing: Ben Woods and Steve Kendley, both of whom are current members of the sheriff’s office. They said that misconduct within the sheriff’s office has gone on for far too long and argued that changes in state law may be necessary to ensure that state officials get involved in these types of situations earlier.
“All of the right people were notified and many of them simply shrugged their shoulders,” Woods said.
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