UPDATED: Lake County Sheriff’s Officers Sue, Calling Department Corrupt ‘Criminal Enterprise’

By Beacon Staff

Five current and former officers of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office have filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing four other officers, including the sheriff and undersheriff, of retaliating against them because of their efforts to expose corruption within the department.

The complaint alleges violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, accusing the sheriff and three other defendants of conspiring to run a “criminal enterprise.”

Deputies Levi Read and Ben Woods, along with fellow officers Mike Gehl and Steve Kendley, are joined by former officer Terry Leonard in the complaint, which was filed on Feb. 21 in U.S. District Court in Missoula. They are seeking monetary damages and a jury trial against Sheriff Jay Doyle, Undersheriff Dan Yonkin and officers Dan Duryee and Mike Sargeant.

The litigation arrives at a turbulent time for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, with multiple state investigations open into allegedly illegal and improper behavior by its officers.

Members of the sheriff’s department and other Lake County law enforcement agencies are the subject of a long-running poaching investigation by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In state investigation documents, Sargeant is described at length for his alleged poaching involvement. The complaint refers to the group of poachers as the “Coyote Club.”

The state Department of Justice has two separate open investigations into Doyle and former Undersheriff Karey Reynolds for perjury and obstruction of justice. Also, the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) has multiple ongoing investigations into Lake County law enforcement, including one pertaining to Duryee. The council has the power to revoke officers’ law certification.

According to the complaint, the five plaintiffs have each brought forward evidence of unlawful conduct by fellow officers, offering the evidence to the sheriff and other organizations such as POST and the Montana attorney general’s office.

Since bringing forth the evidence, the complaint states, the plaintiffs have been reprimanded, suffered demotions, been denied promotions and been “subjected to a hostile work environment by the leadership of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.”

Specifically, the lawsuit says that Woods, Gehl and Read were suspended without pay, while both Kendley and Gehl have suffered demotions. All four of the officers received written reprimands, according to the complaint, and have been subjected to “continual harassment.”

“(The plaintiffs) have been ostracized to the extent that other Officers within the Sheriff’s Department refuse to provide ‘back up’ to the Plaintiffs,” court documents state.

Leading up to the 2010 sheriff’s election, which Doyle won over Kendley, Leonard was a vocal critic of Doyle and other officers. He started a website to “inform potential voters of the ongoing unlawful conduct and corruption taking place” in the sheriff’s office, according to the lawsuit. Leonard was previously a deputy with the department.

On Sept. 29, 2010, a search warrant was carried out on Leonard’s home. Leonard’s computer and other equipment were seized. The lawsuit claims that Yonkin illegally downloaded all of Leonard’s hard drive information onto a separate hard drive, a move that was not granted by the warrant. The property was returned to Leonard on Feb. 10, 2011, court documents state.

In May, Yonkin applied for a second search warrant to search the sheriff’s department-owned hard drive containing the information he had already downloaded from Leonard’s computer, the complaint states.

“Yonkin and the Lake County Sheriff’s Department are still in possession of Leonard’s personal information and communications downloaded from Leonard’s computer although Leonard has never been charged with any crime,” the complaint states.

Yonkin was appointed undersheriff after Reynolds resigned in late January amidst a state Department of Justice investigation. Reynolds said the perjury investigation, which is based off a complaint that he misrepresented his law experience in a search warrant he applied for, had nothing to do with his resignation.

Doyle is also currently under investigation by the state Department of Justice for obstruction of justice for allegedly instructing a deputy not to investigate an incident in Ronan.

Attorney Richard Buley of Tipp & Buley, P.C. of Missoula, who is representing the plaintiffs, said his clients chose to file the lawsuit because they feel the allegations of wrongdoing within the department are not being sufficiently addressed.

“The five guys were hoping they didn’t have to sue,” Buley said. “They were hoping some law enforcement agency with jurisdiction – especially the attorney general’s office – would do something about it. It never happened and it doesn’t appear it’s going to happen.”

Doyle released a statement on Feb. 22 responding to the lawsuit, saying, “I have not yet been served and counsel for the Sheriff’s Office has not had an opportunity to review the documents that have been filed.”

“It is premature for me to discuss the contents of this lawsuit at this time,” the sheriff said.

Doyle said he’s “disappointed that these employees have chosen to file a lawsuit,” noting that “all the deputies are represented by the AFSCME Union.”

“A significant function of the union is to resolve employee complaints and grievances – a process that has been bypassed in this instance in favor of a lawsuit seeking unspecified monetary damages,” he said.

“I take very seriously any allegations of wrongdoing and unlawful acts committed by law enforcement,” Doyle added. “To that end, there are procedures in place to ensure that such complaints are thoroughly investigated. As part of those procedures, it has and continues to be standard practice for allegations to be investigated by outside, independent law enforcement agencies. As your Sheriff, I will continue to ensure that such allegations are acted upon promptly and fairly. Unresolved allegations against any officer tarnish the integrity of all.”

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