Once in a generation, a public servant emerges whose vision of government can only be described as genius. Valerie Stamey is our genius. You may remember her from the eight months she spent as Ravalli County treasurer—a term that ended when the fire department ran out of money and an official investigation discovered more than $750,000 in undeposited checks lying around her office. Coincidentally, that was also the last time Stamey was seen in Montana.
County officials found her in South Carolina last May, after two years of searching. She was served with legal documents informing her of the $152,000 fine Ravalli County district court had levied against her for official misconduct. To the woman of genius, however, such numbers are paltry. After briefly arguing that Montana courts had no legal authority in South Carolina, Stamey came back with her countermove: She is suing Ravalli County employees and the Bitterroot Star for $20.2 million.
In a case filed June 25—three years after county commissioners suspended her from her position as treasurer—Stamey seeks $240,000 for "loss of economic opportunities" and $20 million in punitive damages. The defendants include virtually everyone involved, including the people who put her in office.
In addition to the county attorney, the former treasurer, three former deputy treasurers, the county clerk and the owners of the Bitterroot Star newspaper, Stamey's lawsuit names as defendants county commissioners Greg Chilcott, J.R. Iman, Jeff Burrows, Chris Hoffman and Suzy Foss. Stamey is casting a wide net. But in targeting the commissioners, she probably comes closest to identifying responsibility for this debacle.
Stamey was not voted into office. The county commission appointed her treasurer, apparently on the basis of her involvement in local Republican politics. In the months after her disappearance, investigators learned she had no previous experience in managerial accounting. She also had a default judgment against her in South Carolina for failing to respond to charges that she had fraudulently cashed the same $18,000 check twice. Shortly after she moved to Montana, she took out a mortgage on her South Carolina home, on which she also defaulted.
If commissioners knew any of this information when they made Stamey treasurer—appointing her over county tax lead Linda Isaacs, who at least had professional accounting experience—they didn't mention it. To the lay observer, it looks like they put an utterly unqualified stranger in charge of Ravalli County's money. But the keen legal eye sees that their decision was no accident. It was not negligence but conspiracy—a conspiracy to create, in the words of Stamey's lawsuit, "the false impression that she was incompetent."
- photo courtesy ravalli.us
"This case represents the coordinated effort on the part of those in charge of Ravalli County government to utterly destroy the livelihood and dignity of a person based on a complete fabrication to protect the malfeasance of the Defendant's [sic] herein named," the suit claims. "In Ravalli County, they aren't content to beat you; they must destroy everything about you."
I am glad to see that Stamey's attorney, Robert Myers, follows the legal convention of using an apostrophe to warn the reader that an S is coming up. I'm glad to see him again, period. In February 2014, shortly after Stamey left office, Myers announced plans to sue investigating accountant James Woy for libel. That suit has not been filed. Last year, Myers unsuccessfully ran for a seat on Ravalli County District Court and was charged with professional misconduct twice during the campaign. In response, he filed a lawsuit against the state's chief disciplinary counsel.
Given this litigious climate, I would like to state clearly that Stamey is definitely not a maniac or some kind of grifter. She is the innocent victim of a dozen government officials who lured her to Ravalli County, appointed her treasurer, and then sabotaged her so they could defame her. The only other explanation is that commissioners made the worst hiring decision in Ravalli history—a decision that is still wasting public funds and embarrassing the county four years later. But that explanation just doesn't make sense.
They wouldn't put a stranger in charge of the county's money without a background check. They wouldn't appoint a treasurer with no accounting experience and a record of fraud at a moment when the treasury was already in disarray. It must be a conspiracy, because the alternative is to believe that commissioners ran Ravalli County less carefully than most assistant managers run a Jiffy Lube.
I'm with Stamey on this one. County commissioners sabotaged the treasury to make her look incompetent, and then everyone from third-party accountants to the owners of a local newspaper conspired to support that impression. We're still not clear on who made her flee the state, but I'm sure that will come out. The alternative is to believe that this multi-year, hundred-thousand-dollar debacle happened by accident, because no one was smart enough to stop it. That possibility is just too terrifying to contemplate.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture, and the struggle between incompetence and evil at combatblog.net.