In Broadwater County County Commissioner Laura Obert was arraigned in the First Judicial Court on June 5th 2020 on charges of felony theft and official misconduct.
Under the Montana legal process, the case is advanced from the arraignment process to booking on the charges and then released or held with a bond. In this case, Commissioner Laura Obert pleaded not guilty to the charges. She was booked and released on her own recognizance with scheduling of court proceedings set in motion.
Bobbi Meehan owner of the Broadwater Reporter newspaper made an initial request for a copy of the booking photo of Mrs. Obert. Under the guidance of Mr. Marty Lambert that has been assigned to the case on behalf of Broadwater County by Attorney General Tim Fox declined to allow the photo to be released. County Attorney Cory Swanson also recommended that the photo not be released. The other 2 County commissioners also declined to get involved and told Sheriff Meehan they would side with the recommendations of the Special Prosecuting Attorney and legal counsel from Montana Association of Counties legal staff.
Ms. Meehan then filed for a Freedom Of Information Act request to the Sheriff’s department demanding that the photo be released as per the requirements of 44-5-301MCA. Sheriff Wynn Meehan immediately responded to the FOIA request with the following statement:
Thank you for your FOIA request for the for the booking photo of Mrs. Laura O’Bert from June 5, 2020. I am well aware that under MCA 44-5-301 that photo is public record. I also understand that 10th Judicial District Judge Oldenberg’s ruling and the fact the Attorney General of Montana declined to give an opinion on this, but rather stood with the judges ruling. Since you requested the information, I have gone out of my way to find laws and legal advise for your request. After speaking with Sheriff’s around the state, they tell me to give you the photo. Special Prosecutor Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert and Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson are refusing to allow me to provide it to you as they say is confidential criminal justice information and has to be obtained through the court. I and many Sheriff’s across the state completely disagree by what the law says. I have talked about transparency in my office and enforcing the law of the country and state, equally and fairly with all citizens. This disregard for public information requests, right to know, and what I see is the citizens rights to know outweighs the release of the photo. However, since all the guidance I have received from MACO and from the two attorneys is to not release the photo, I am placed in the uncomfortable place of denying you and the citizens request. Please understand I COMPLETELY disagree with their ideas and please feel free to take whatever action you feel necessary. Respectfully, Sheriff Wynn M. Meehan
On July 7th 2020, the Broadwater Reporter owner still not having the county officials recognize the law regarding the rights of the public, filed action in court.
Cause # DV-2020-33 filed complaint seeking a “request for declaratory relief and request for issuance of writ of mandate”
The case against Broadwater County and through it’s Sheriff Wynn Meehan (hereinafter collectively “Defendant” due to the failure to provide the plaintiff a public record, namely a copy of Broadwater County Commissioner Laura Obert’s criminal booking photo taken June 5th 2020.
As a matter of statutory law and pursuant to Article II Section 9 of the Constitution of Montana, the plaintiff in the case has been unlawfully denied access to public records.
Under Montana law 44-5-301, the booking photo is pubic record. Even though the law is clear, under advice given by Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert appointed as special counsel to Broadwater County Sheriff Meehan was told not to release the photo.
When asked why the legal public record is not to be released, it is said that there is fear that the defendant in the case may file lawsuit against Broadwater county.
No one is above the law, but in Broadwater County it appears that there are exceptions to upholding the oath of office and protecting the public trust by elected and appointed officials.
There is a very colorful history in Broadwater County where exceptions to the rule of law have been practiced leaving the citizens without representation.
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