| January 02, 2014

It's hard to believe, but the prevailing jurisprudence in Montana holds that the state can brazenly sue citizens who demand access to government records. That's what happened to the Independent when it sought the disciplinary records of Lake County law officers accused of misconduct. Reluctant to turn over the requested files without a court order, then-Attorney General Steve Bullock filed a lawsuit, naming the Indy as a defendant. The state argued that the accused lawmen had privacy rights that trumped the people's right to know.

We couldn't lay down and let the AG's office hold sway over the court. To ensure the judge heard a strong argument for the public's interest, the Indy lawyered up, and we more or less won, obtaining redacted versions of all the files we sought. Among the astonishing details, we found that Bullock himself had been badly embarrassed by the account of Frank Bowen, a warden with Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Bowen revealed how his FWP superiors, fearing the mess in Lake County made Bullock look soft on corruption, forced Bowen to stop pursuing his poaching investigation of several Lake County deputies, ordered him not to discuss his work and reassigned him.

Republicans tried to pry into the unfolding fiasco, convening legislative hearings to politicize the situation during Bullock's gubernatorial campaign. But with Bowen effectively gagged, they never got any meaty details until a year later, when we prevailed in court. By then, Bullock had already won the election.

You would think that once the court had sided with the Indy, we'd be entitled to some relief from the onerous legal burden. But you'd be wrong. Montana District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that we had to foot our substantial legal fees entirely on our own—describing our request for reimbursement as "a substantial injustice" against the state.

Yeah, our jaws dropped, too. But we're not the first people to encounter this kind of twisted legal reasoning. In her ruling, Seeley relied on some similar recent cases, and they've all gone the government's way on the issue of expenses. When it comes to attorneys' fees, the judges have discretion, and they've consistently endorsed the now-routine practice of government entities running to court every time privacy rights might interfere with the public right to know, regardless of whether the privacy claim is a fig leaf for unwarranted secrecy or not. It turns out that in Montana, your constitutionally guaranteed right to know only goes as deep as the pocket that pays your lawyer.

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

wow an officers right to privacy outweighs the publics right to know where did w hear that.....?

0 accountability.....!!!!!!

Posted by never trut authority on 02/12/2014 at 8:33 AM

We should be past reminding and telling the government that their duty IS to defend our rights not ignore, abuse or conditionalize them! Actions speak louder than the words, which they ignore. BTW both Matt Gibson and Matthew Frank, who did the report, will be interviewed Tuesday morning (8:30-10) on Talk Back, KGVO 1290 AM and 101.5 FM

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Posted by niam on 01/13/2014 at 10:45 AM

The Independent published a great deal of information. You can access it here:
There is more and it is public information thanks to the Federal Lawsuit.

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Posted by Longbow on 01/10/2014 at 11:07 PM

The powers that be, you know the ones who take an oath to uphold the constitution, Federal and State, follow 2 sets of statutes. One that they are all over and above and one that they shove down our throats. Especially if we have the nerve to question them about their actions or non-actions. And we let them get away with it for the same reason the Indy is facing this crap. Sure we have Art II sec 8&9 MT Constitution but they make sure the statutes that help enforce both, are so vague that the government can stretch, ignore, edit, whatever, the meaning to how ever it pleases. They know the government has all the time and money, OURS, to drag it out in the courts. Usually by the time it finally ends, the issues are outdated and moot. Maybe the Indy should also get on the band wagon to get the Special Grand Jury, petitioned by the people, re-instated here in MT. Check out one such movement The National Liberty Alliance .

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Posted by niam on 01/09/2014 at 8:11 AM

Is this for real? Holey smokes the last time I checked a US citizen had every right to public information and that includes police reports, arrest records and the outcome of an investigation after it’s gone to trial.

My question is when are you going to release all the information you received?

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Posted by Shadow on 01/07/2014 at 7:58 PM

I hesitate to actually post on this, but I find it too telling and too sad to not make some sort of comment. Unfortunately, the Indy, in its search for the truth has encountered the same legal system hurdles and frustrations that a group of good decent cops (including Frank Bowen) did when they decided to take a stand against corruption.
Keep up the good fight for the truth. Honor, Integrity & Courage.

Terry Leonard

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Posted by T Leonard on 01/07/2014 at 12:04 AM

That's a shame. First, people need to consider what they say and do if it were to be on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow.

Second, why is political meddling occurring amongst mid-level managers of the civil service?

Finally, why do I need to sue my government for a piece of paper I paid them to create? I pay them every quarter and many pay them every two weeks - the government works for us, damn it, not the other way around.

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Posted by Greg Strandberg on 01/02/2014 at 6:07 AM
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