By Tim Ravndal
Over 10 years ago citizens in Broadwater County exposed corruption in the county government. Multiple attempts to ensure that the truth was brought to the surface was made by a coalition of concerned citizens. Each attempt resulted in officials pulling every maneuver they could to avoid answering to the people. Past Commissioner Franklyn Slifka on behalf of the people took the actions of two commissioners to court for violating the rights of the people and won.
At the head of the corruption was and still is past Commissioner Laura Obert. Her actions throughout her two terms as commissioner of Broadwater County placed the county in legal question many times. Violations of open meeting laws and the Constitutional Rights of the citizens was regularly raised but doors were slammed shut and the curtain was drawn on the truth.
Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson inherited a negligent judicial branch of the county as the previous County Attorney Karla Bosse failed to do her job for the people of Broadwater County. A major criminal case where Deputy Mason Moore was murdered in Broadwater County has consumed a majority of Mr. Swanson’s time. Mr. Swanson repeatedly responds to calls for action on behalf of the citizens, with… “My criminal case load is overwhelming.”
The expansion of the needed funding for the judicial branch of Broadwater County has continually met opposition from past Commissioner Obert in the county budgeting process. Needing funding to prosecute Lloyd Barrus for murder, has been under stress. The office of the Sheriff equally has met opposition to the need for increased funding with outside mediating guidance to the county commissioners hand picked by Commissioner Obert.
The continuing increase in operating costs has not been sustainable according to both elected officials. Sheriff Wynn Meehan has regularly met with the county commissioners each fiscal year seeking the needed funding to operate the public safety department. Commissioner Obert regularly ignored the calls for more funding from County Attorney Cory Swanson and Sheriff Wynn Meehan.
Citizens from across the county began questioning accountability in Broadwater County. The citizens led by past Commissioner Franklyn Slifka, filed direct conflict of interest charges against Commissioner Obert. The court found violations of law and the case concluded with partial accountability to the citizens of Broadwater County. The case triggered additional investigations that have brought additional charges against past Commissioner Laura Obert.
Charges of felony theft were eventually filed in district court against Broadwater County Commissioner Obert. Because County Attorney Cory Swanson was unable to move the case forward due to a conflict of interest by law, his hands were tied and could not represent the people of the county that elected him. The case was referred to the Montana Attorney Generals office where past AG Tim Fox appointed Brent Light to investigate the allegations. Multiple members of the AG team were tasked with bringing the case forward. After much delay the case was finally filed in the 1st Judicial District Court under Judge Reynolds.
Judge Reynolds having been on the bench hearing previous complaints in and about Broadwater County officials was experienced to move the case forward. Unfortunately for the citizens of Broadwater County for reasons unknown, Judge Reynolds retired. The case was handed over to a new judge and more delays were handed down for relief to the citizens of Broadwater County.
Obert Booked on Felony Charges
In the filing of the charges, another crime was committed by the elected officials. Broadwater Reporter, the local newspaper sought a copy of the booking photo that is public information. Under guidance of Montana Association Of Counties (MACO) and other legal counsel Sheriff Meehan was advised not to release the photo. Even though Montana Statute is clear on the public information, Sheriff Meehan refused to release the photo.
The local newspaper under the freedom of the press sought relief through a freedom of information request but was again denied the photo. The local paper was forced to hire an attorney and file action against the county and the sheriff. The new judge overseeing the original case and the additional challenge on the booking photo continued to push the original case down the road. The case is currently not scheduled to go to trial until late 2021.
Past Commissioner Laura Obert has filed for a dismissal of all charges against her. Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert, appointed to lead the case by Attorney General Tim Fox has not challenged any of the motions made by the defense allowing the case to continue to be delayed.
The case against the county legally requiring the release the booking photo, is facing a judicial twist that further amplifies a delay in justice. Past Commissioner Obert moved that the county be removed as plaintiff and her to be registered as the defendant in the booking photo case. No objections from any of the attorneys placed that motion before the court where the judge agreed. The Sheriff who was the lead defendant in the booking photo case was also removed from the case without objection. Broadwater County Undersheriff Brandon Harris was then named as the defendant in the case. Mr. Harris not having any involvement in the case is now named as the responsible official.
The case of the booking photo continues to sit on Judge Mike Menahan’s desk while the local newspaper continues to incur legal fees to provide the citizens of Broadwater County the truth.
The Judge in the primary case where the felony charges are pending scheduled and heard a motion for dismissal by the defense Late January 2021. Witnesses for the defense were called along with documents that placed the discovery in motion. The judge, in hearing the presentation, was forced to call for clarification as there were documents that were created between the Attorney General’s office and the defendant that had not be presented to either the prosecution or the court.
The plandemic lockdown on the judicial system across Montana comes to play in this and other cases in Broadwater County. The hearing for dismissal was closed by the judge before conclusion and as of February 3rd 2021is still pending. The hearing has not been rescheduled for conclusion or decision. Case load continues to see a backlog with remote proceedings done through the internet due to the plandemic. Each of these cases run into technical issues further clouding the due process expected by the citizens of Broadwater County.
With the case against Commissioner Obert now pending nearly 2 years, the citizens of Broadwater County are asking when will elected officials provide a path to the truth in Broadwater County. STAY TUNED!
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