UPDATE: Lake County Group Eyed After Election Complaint

By Beacon Staff

POLSON – The state political practices commission is investigating a Lake County organization after a sheriff’s candidate alleged it was trying to influence the election by wrongly accusing him and the sheriff of wrongdoing.

The Concerned Citizens of Lake County claims on its website and in newspaper ads that the sheriff’s office has misappropriated money and that ammunition was missing.

The group has demanded the resignation of Sheriff Lucky Larson, who is not running for re-election, and Undersheriff Jay Doyle, who is running for the post against two other sheriff’s office employees.

The sheriff has called the allegations “malicious,” and Doyle’s campaign filed a complaint with Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth, claiming anonymous people behind the group were linked to another candidate’s campaign.

All three candidates currently work in the Lake County sheriff’s office. Detective Dan Yonkin is a Democrat; Detective Steve Kendley is an independent; and Doyle is a Republican.

Unsworth told the Missoulian newspaper that laws governing campaign disclosures don’t just apply to supporters of candidates or ballot issues but also cover anyone seeking to affect the outcome of an election.

“At its heart, the issue is disclosure,” Unsworth said. “Who’s speaking? Who’s paying for it? That’s important business for us.”

Terry Leonard, who was fired by Larson from his job as a deputy, said he was solely responsible for the website, and the Concerned Citizens of Lake County also includes several current and former law enforcement officers and civilians.

“It’s not politically motivated,” Leonard said of the website and ads. “It’s simply free speech. I don’t care who’s sheriff. All I know is the office is corrupt.”

Unsworth said it’s typical in such cases for people to claim First Amendment rights to anonymously to do such things. That is part of the investigation, he said.

Lake County Attorney Mitch Young is seeking the identity of the person or persons to whom the websites are registered and who paid for the advertisements in the Lake County Leader.

The ads and website all said the messages were “in no way affiliated with any sheriff candidate for Lake County.”

But information in the newspaper ads used candidate Doyle’s picture and the address of an inactive website that opposed Doyle.

Leonard acknowledged he started the “No Jay Doyle” website but said he took it down after two weeks and that he has complied with election law.

Lanny Van Meter, a detention officer with the sheriff’s office and the secretary-treasurer of Doyle’s campaign committee who filed the complaint, claimed Concerned Citizens of Lake County is a group of Kendley supporters hiding behind free-speech claims.

“Anybody who saw the ads knows they are political,” Van Meter said. “They can’t be doing this undercover. You can’t run a political action committee unless you’re licensed, and fill out financials before and after elections.”

Kendley told the Missoulian neither he nor his campaign had anything to do with Concerned Citizens of Lake County, but he admires Leonard’s “courage to speak to things I know to be the truth.”