At a recent legislative hearing in Helena, a state game warden and senator both raised concerns that witness tampering, lack of cooperation and resistance from law officials have impeded a two-year investigation into alleged criminal behavior by Lake County law enforcement officers.
At the center of the discussions was Lake County Attorney Mitch Young, who is ultimately responsible for pursuing many of the requests for criminal charges stemming from the lengthy Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks poaching investigation.
Frank Bowen, game warden for FWP Region 1, testified under subpoena at a June 22 Law and Justice Interim Committee meeting at the state capitol. Bowen said his agency wrapped up its investigation and sent case reports to four county attorneys in February requesting a variety of charges against officers from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Polson Police Department and Flathead Tribal Police Department.
While saying that the majority of law officers are upstanding, Bowen described allegedly brazen criminality among officers who were the subject of his investigation, with barroom bragging characterized by the motto: “You can’t break the law if you are the law.”
“When (people) ask them, ‘How can you get away with doing that, much less come to the bar and brag about it?’” Bowen testified at the hearing. “They say, ‘Nobody screws with law enforcement in Lake County.’ So that’s the backdrop we’re up against.”
State investigation documents obtained by the Beacon describe varying degrees of alleged witness tampering and refusal to cooperate by officers suspected of crimes. Bowen discussed these concerns at the hearing, referring to witnesses he interviewed who said they had been harassed and threatened. The allegations stemmed from dozens of interviews and sworn statements from officers.
“The reoccurring theme did seem to be that if somebody got sideways with local law enforcement … they would get either a complaint or they would get trouble of some sort,” Bowen said. “I’ve got to say that I’ve run into that myself.”
Bowen said he has received multiple complaints and death threats for conducting his investigation. He said Young filed a complaint accusing him of lying and witness tampering during his investigation. The complaint was found to have no merit by an outside investigator but Bowen said it has held up cases in the other three counties – Ravalli, Flathead and Beaverhead.
Although the alleged crimes cover four counties, Bowen indicated only Lake County officers – from multiple law enforcement agencies – were involved.
“I hope that we are going to start asking for some kind of resolution pretty quick,” Bowen said of the pending charges in four counties.
Young didn’t return phone calls from the Beacon but in a past interview he said he had looked into FWP’s allegations and found them to be a “bunch of crap and rumors.”
“Frankly, I’m tired of talking about it,” Young said in November.
In a recent Associated Press story, Young again said the allegations have no merit.
“Mr. Bowen’s investigations have never had any merit, and they continue to not have any merit,” Young told the AP. “And the only person that doesn’t seem to understand that is Mr. Bowen. It is a mystery to me how he still has his position as an investigator.”
At one point during his two-year investigation, Bowen testified that FWP contacted Young’s office about a case. Bowen said the case was solid – “potentially a felony” – and needed to be dealt with promptly because the statute of limitations was approaching.
Bowen said Lee Anderson, FWP’s Region 1 warden captain, requested a meeting with Young, which Young declined. The gesture “aggravated” Anderson, Bowen said. After Anderson responded by “vividly” describing “all of the different indiscretions we were investigating,” Young took no action.
“That case never got brought forward,” Bowen testified. “That case we never talked with the Lake County attorney about and it was the jurisdiction it had to go into.”
Sen. Jim Shockley of Victor, chairman of the Law and Justice Interim Committee, said he has taken an interest in the Lake County investigations by FWP and other state agencies and boards. Shockley believes there are conflict-of-interest concerns, with a county attorney reluctant to prosecute his own law officers.
“You must believe in the tooth fairy if you think that that county attorney is going to pursue claims against his deputies,” Shockley said.
In an interview, Shockley said when officers are accused of crimes in Ravalli County the cases are turned over to outside investigators and he believes that’s how those situations should be handled statewide.
“Obviously somebody’s got something to hide,” Shockley said, “and it ain’t Bowen.”
The FWP investigation is one of multiple investigations by several state agencies and boards into allegations of criminal behavior by Lake County law enforcement officers over the past couple of years. The poaching inquiry started in March 2010.
Additionally, POST, the quasi-judicial state board that essentially polices the police, has opened a string of investigations into the Lake County law enforcement community. A number of Lake County officers spread out across different agencies face contested-case hearings that could lead to everything from no action to permanent revocation of their law certification.
In past interviews, POST Executive Director Wayne Ternes said he has also encountered resistance from various levels of Lake County’s law community during his investigations. A group of officials including Young, Lake County Sheriff Jay Doyle, Polson-Ronan City Attorney James Raymond and others traveled to Helena in August of last year to speak out against POST’s investigations.
Though the FWP investigation focused on poaching, it turned up other allegations outside of the agency’s jurisdiction, which were handed over to the state Department of Justice’s division of criminal investigation. Bowen said officials from the division initially told him they planned to “look into all but one of those charges, but I’ve since been told that they weren’t.”
The Attorney General’s office recently cleared the Lake County Sheriff’s Office of three separate criminal allegations unrelated to the FWP investigation. Also, five former and current officers of the sheriff’s department have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court accusing department officials of retaliating against them for their attempts to expose corruption.
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