As news spreads that Missoula County Democratic Party Executive Board Chair Starla Gade was convicted in 2004 of embezzling from her employer, the party appears poised to oust her. "The majority of the executive board voted that we have no confidence in Starla's ability to lead at this time," says Dustin Hankinson, its vice chair.
The board voted on the issue Aug. 26, less than a week after conservative blog Treasure State Politics reported that Gade was convicted in 2004 of deceptive practices. She had embezzled nearly $36,000 from Sunelco, a Bitterroot Valley solar-power business. Gade pleaded guilty to the charges, served 60 days in county jail and, according to state records, was sentenced to a 10-year suspended sentence.
Hankinson says that, to his knowledge, Gade did not disclose her conviction to the party—and that's why the board has no confidence in her leadership.
"It's not the fact that this happened years ago," Hankinson says. "It's more how it's been handled regarding our organization...Some board members feel that we should have been aware of this long before we nominated Starla as chair."
Hankinson says the Missoula Democratic Party Central Committee, a larger voting body that elects executive board members, has the final say over whether Gade remains as chair.
Gade has volunteered for the Missoula County Democrats for the past four years. The party's central committee, made up of 26 representatives from across the county, elected her to chair its executive board in May.
After the Treasure State post, Gade sent an email to friends and political allies, saying that, although it's not an excuse for her crime, at the time she had recently left an abusive relationship and was working to raise four children alone: "No car, no job, no money, pretty big hole to dig out of. Some thought I was crazy and should have stayed married."
When contacted by the Independent, Gade said she's a different person now. "That's not how I do business today," she explained. "I think my service to the community proves that."
Gade adds that it's because she knows what economic desperation feels like that she's now passionate about working to ensure that others have a safety net. "It's the reason for everything I do," she says. "I don't want services cut for people who are struggling. That leads them to make choices that are almost always bad."