BILLINGS — Plagiarism revelations involving U.S. Sen. John Walsh and his subsequent political collapse marked Montana’s top news story of 2014, according to The Associated Press’ annual poll of state editors.
This year’s list includes a judge striking down Montana’s gay marriage ban, a Butte native identifying himself as Osama bin Laden’s shooter and the conviction of a Missoula man in the killing of a German exchange student.
It includes stories unique to Montana — the designation of the first new wilderness in the state in 31 years — and others with national ramifications, such as new rules for oil trains in the wake of several fiery accidents.
Walsh’s story was a narrow winner, bringing in 125 of the maximum possible 150 points. The gay marriage ruling came in second with 117. Tied for third were Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill and a Democratic collapse in the November election that paved the way for Republican victories.
Here are Montana’s top 10 stories, in order:
WALSH PLAGIARISM: Revelations that Democratic U.S. Sen. John Walsh plagiarized large portions of a paper he submitted while attending the U.S. Army War College put a quick end to his brief political career and upended the November election. Walsh, a former adjutant general and lieutenant governor, was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock in February to fill a vacancy after six-term U.S. Sen. Max Baucus was named ambassador to China. Critics derided the move as a politically motivated ploy to keep the seat in Democratic hands, but any advantage the Democrats gained quickly evaporated after Walsh’s plagiarism was revealed by The New York Times in July. The Army War College later revoked Walsh’s 2007 master’s degree and grinded his name from a plaque listing graduates.
GAY MARRIAGE: U.S. District Judge Brian Morris threw out the state’s Constitutional amendment that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Morris said the 2004 voter-approved amendment violated the 14th Amendment. County clerks of court began issuing marriage licenses within hours, while Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said he would appeal the ruling. Montana had been one of the last states to continue defending its gay marriage ban.
BIN LADEN SHOOTER: A retired U.S. Navy SEAL from Butte publicly identifies himself as the man who shot who says he shot al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in the forehead. Robert O’Neill had first recounted his story for a February 2013 Esquire magazine article that identified him only as “the shooter.” The winner of two Silver and five Bronze Stars said the American public had a right to more details about the operation that killed the man blamed for masterminding the 9-11 terror attacks.
DEMOCRATS FOLD, REPUBLICANS ROLL: After Baucus left and Walsh was sidelined, a weakened Democratic party got rolled over in two key federal elections. For the Senate race, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines bested the Democrat’s last-minute nominee, Butte math teacher Amanda Curtis, to give Republicans control of the seat for the first time in more than a century. For the House, former Navy SEAL and Republican state Sen. Ryan Zinke easily topped Baucus staffer John Lewis.
KAARMA TRIAL: A jury convicted Markus Kaarma of deliberate homicide after he gunned down a 17-year-old German exchange student caught trespassing in his Missoula garage. Kaarma’s attorneys argued his actions were justified by a state law allowing the use of deadly force if a person fears for his or her safety or their property. Prosecutors said Kaarma set a trap, leaving the garage door open with a purse inside to lure burglars before firing four shotgun blasts that killed student Diren Dede.
CHURCH ABUSE: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan that proposed a $16.4 million settlement with people who said clergy members sexually abused them for decades while the church covered it up. Insurance companies would contribute $14.4 million to the trust and the diocese would contribute $2 million through a loan secured by church property.
TEACHER RAPE CASE: State District Judge G. Todd Baugh was reprimanded by the state Supreme Court and doesn’t seek re-election after he suggests that a 14-year-old girl shared some responsibility in her rape by a Billings teacher. The high court also threw out Baugh’s lenient one-month sentence for rapist Stacey Rambold. He was re-sentenced by another judge to 10 years in prison with five years suspended.
OIL TRAINS: Fiery train accidents that came with a boom in the shipment of crude by rail drew a backlash from regulators. U.S. Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx proposed tougher regulations including stronger tank cars for oil shipments, but companies pushed back over the high cost of replacing older cars.
WILDERNESS BILL: President Barack Obama signed a law creating Montana’s first new wilderness in 31 years. Montana’s Congressional delegation used a legislative rider on a major defense policy bill to advance the wilderness measure as part of a package of lands-related legislation affecting Montana. Also included was a coal swap involving the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
BARRY BEACH: Montana’s parole board denied a clemency bid from Barry Beach, who said he will keep fighting to overturn his 100-year murder sentence for the 1979 beating death of a high school-classmate.
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