Matthew Sisler says his own legal troubles began because he took on cases nobody else would touch.
The Missoula man, who until recently had his own law practice, represented some of Montana’s highest-profile malcontents, including alleged Project Seven mastermind Dave Burgert. Sisler has seen his name repeatedly associated with extremists in the media, and last year had his license to practice law indefinitely suspended. In a wide-ranging interview, Sisler discussed his experiences with Burgert and past clients like Militia of Montana leader John Trochmann, as well as his own legal woes.
Sisler’s first brush with infamy came when the tax-protesting Freemen had a standoff with federal agents at their Jordan ranch in 1996. Sisler got involved in 1995 when one of his clients, a Eureka man named Cajun James, claimed the Freemen had sent him a fraudulent money order. Sisler sued the Freeman and won a $640,000 civil judgment for his client.
Sisler took pride in representing people like Cajun James, people without money, power, or access to the law. “I provided high-level service for my clients,” he says. “People with nowhere else to turn would call me, and I would help them.”
The bad publicity soon followed. Though he was only involved in the Freemen situation to sue the group, Sisler says he was never able to shake the label, “Freemen attorney.”
“For some reason people said, ‘If he can get this type of information, he must be a Freeman,’” Sisler says.
It was through James that Sisler met John Trochmann, the Noxon man who founded the Militia of Montana. Trochmann had gone to the Freemen standoff, claiming he wanted to help broker a settlement. During the standoff he and several of his companions had a run-in with deputies from the Musselshell County Sheriff’s office, and Trochmann’s car window was smashed. Trochmann was arrested but charges against him were later dropped. Sisler represented Trochmann in a lawsuit charging that he was mistreated by authorities. In 1999 a federal jury found that the Musselshell County sheriff had violated Trochmann’s civil rights.
Sisler says he did “a lot of soul searching” before accepting Trochmann as a client, but ultimately his decision was easy to make. “Why would I be afraid to represent an individual who had genuine civil rights claims? Politics be damned,” Sisler says.
Sisler was led into more politically dangerous territory with Dave Burgert, an ex-Marine who owned a sports rental business in Kalispell and was having occasional run-ins with the police. Burgert felt harassed and the police feared he was unpredictable. In a 1999 incident in which Burgert was pulled over, an officer drew a gun on him, and Sisler talked Burgert through the incident the whole time on a cell phone. He says he also helped Burgert with several other cases, including a charge of assaulting a peace officer during a January 2001 incident.
That was the last time Sisler represented Burgert, as Sisler was having his own legal troubles in 2001 dating back to a case from several years earlier. Sisler had represented a man named Marty Bennett in a divorce case. The Montana Supreme Court’s Commission on Practice found that Sisler had violated the rules of professional conduct by communicating with Bennett’s wife, Julia, about the divorce while she was being represented by another lawyer. The court also found that Sisler had made false statements to the Sanders County Attorney’s office about the case. In June, 2001 the Supreme Court upheld the finding of the Commission and Sisler was suspended from practicing law.
Sisler adamantly denies any wrongdoing in the Bennett divorce. He claims that Julia Bennett told him she had fired her attorney and was dropping the divorce proceedings before they had any conversations. Sisler prepared a lawsuit against Julia Bennett for fraud, and on November 27, 2001 he went to Kalispell with a process server named David Williams to serve her the papers. They sought the help of Dave Burgert, who had helped Williams in the past. Later that evening, police pulled over Sisler and Williams after Julia Bennett’s new husband complained that he was being “stalked.”
In a videotape of the incident provided to the Independent by David Williams, police officers can be seen talking with Sisler and Williams in their truck, while Burgert parks his car across the street. With the camera aimed on the officer leaning in the driver’s side window, Burgert is visible in the lower right corner. Officers approach Burgert on the other side of the street. As the videotape lacks sound, it is impossible to know what was said, but police officers are seen pepper-spraying Burgert.
Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner says that two officers asked Burgert to leave but he refused. “Rather than try to wrestle with him or take some more physically confrontational action they chose to use pepper spray which is a lower level use of force,” Garner says.
Williams has another a tape from later that night when Burgert was taken to the Kalispell police station. It shows him asking for medical treatment with his eyes swollen shut from the pepper spray. Officers put a white hood over his head to keep him from spitting up mucus, and he says it is making him breathe the chemical back in. Garner says that Burgert was intentionally spitting at officers, and that they acted professionally by applying the hood.
About a month later, Burgert disappeared. When he resurfaced in early February, he had a day-long stand-off with nearly 50 police officers. Burgert was arrested, and a police search turned up a cache of weapons, survival gear, and a list of police and judges. Officials announced that he was the leader of the Project Seven militia group, and that he was plotting to assassinate local officials to spark an all-out militia war.
Burgert is not the man he has been made out to be, Sisler says. If the lists and the guns were Burgert’s, he says, they were probably for a defensive purpose.
Sisler says he has helped Burgert’s new attorneys as much as he can, but is not allowed to practice law or give legal advice himself. Now an employee at a Missoula computer training center, Sisler is not sure if he will petition for reinstatement of his license. His focus now is on his new job and providing for his family. He is also not sure what will become of his suddenly infamous old client.
“Strange things proliferate in cases involving Dave Burgert,” Sisler says. “As long as I was able to help him he was fine. When I wasn’t there, things started to fall apart.”