Attorney General Defends Commissioner Mitchell Plea Deal After Sheriff Calls it ‘Embarrassing’

Mitchell expected to plead guilty to misdemeanor for destroying county-owned trees

By Justin Franz
Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell pleaded not guilty on a felony criminal mischief charge in Flathead County District Court on Aug. 31, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The Montana Department of Justice is defending a plea deal it reached with Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell that Sheriff Chuck Curry called “embarrassing.”

Mitchell is expected to plead guilty next week to misdemeanor criminal mischief, nearly a year after he destroyed six county-owned trees at a park near his home on Whitefish Lake. Because Mitchell caused approximately $30,000 worth of damage, he was charged with a felony. In a plea agreement between state prosecutors and the defense, the felony is reduced to a misdemeanor.

On Thursday, Curry called the plea deal an “embarrassment” and worried that it would appear as if Mitchell was being let off easy because he’s an elected official.

“When you are a public official and you commit a crime against the public that you represent you should be held responsible and that clearly has not happened in this case,” Curry told the Beacon.

Curry said he called Attorney General Tim Fox on Thursday to voice his displeasure about the plea agreement.

But a spokesperson for Fox is defending the plea agreement. In a statement to the Beacon, Director of Communications Eric Sell said the agreement had the full support of the Flathead County Parks and Recreation Department, held Mitchell responsible for his crime and was consistent with state law.

“It appears Sheriff Curry wants the attorney general’s office to charge Mr. Mitchell with a crime that would result in Mitchell’s removal from office. The prosecutors within the Attorney General’s office use their best judgment in every case they process. They do not change their prosecution of crimes based on personal disputes between individuals—whether elected officials or private citizens,” Sell said.

Sell added that “the operations of our office will not be affected by politics.”

Curry dismissed Sell’s response and said he had no personal dispute with Mitchell.

According to court records, on July 11, 2017, a Flathead County Parks and Recreation Department employee found six dying or dead cottonwood trees in a half-acre county-owned park known as Lake Park Addition just south of Whitefish Lake State Park. The trees appeared to be girdled, a tactic that involves removing a thick strip of bark ringing the tree’s circumference, causing the tree to die.

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation into the destruction in July and retained an arborist who determined it would cost more than $30,000 to replace the trees.

In an interview with law enforcement, Mitchell allegedly admitted to girdling the trees and pouring the herbicide Roundup on at least one of them.

Mitchell was charged with felony criminal mischief in August and pleaded not guilty on Aug. 31.

Mitchell later issued a written apology to county staff for destroying the trees and offered to pay for their replacement. He said he destroyed the cottonwoods because they were a “substantial nuisance” that frequently dropped limbs onto his adjacent property.

Mitchell, a former member of the Whitefish City Council from 2010 to 2013, was elected to the Flathead County Board of Commissioners in 2014.

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