McDermott and Johnson

Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott, left, and former undersheriff Jason Johnson, shortly after McDermott's election in 2014. Johnson recently retired and the two now own a company together.

Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott waited 18 days after purchasing  a company that does tens of thousands of dollars a year in business with the county before telling the Missoula County Attorney’s Office or the county commissioners he was now a part-owner of the firm.

After months of negotiations, McDermott and former undersheriff Jason Johnson on Feb. 10 purchased Montana Electronics, a company whose business includes law enforcement radios and other emergency communications equipment. Johnson retired from the department when the deal closed, saying he was looking forward to realizing a lifelong dream of owning his own company.

Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst said Friday she first learned on Feb. 23 that McDermott partnered with Johnson to buy the company. She said she became aware of it when a broadcast reporter sent her an email containing records showing the purchase, and that McDermott requested a legal opinion about it the following week.

“Our job as legal advisors for Missoula County is to offer legal opinions or assistance to department heads, including the sheriff, when they are requested,” Pabst said.

Chief Deputy County Attorney Jason Marks said McDermott got in touch with him on Feb. 28 asking to have a meeting to discuss several matters. He and the sheriff met that day and talked about the legal responsibilities the sheriff had now that he co-owned a company that did business with the county.

At the end of the meeting, Marks said McDermott asked him to write a legal opinion about being the sheriff and owning the company, and Marks did so that day.

McDermott said he is committed to following Marks’ legal opinion and not having his office do any more business with Montana Electronics or its subsidiaries, Omnicom Paging Plus and Hickman Sites. He said there have been no transactions between the companies and his department since the purchase. The sheriff said he is a “silent partner” in Montana Electronics with no involvement in the day-to-day affairs of the company and added that he doesn’t “even have a keyring to the building.”

The sheriff said Thursday he consulted with attorneys during months of negotiations on the purchase about the possibility of conflicts of interest and what he should do to avoid them. In response to further questions on Friday, he said the attorneys he spoke with before the sale were from Missoula firm Datsopoulos, MacDonald and Lind, as well as lawyer Shane Reely.

The sheriff said he reached out to the Missoula County Attorney’s Office after the purchase on the advice of those lawyers, who had told him to get a written legal opinion on the matter.

When asked why he hadn’t involved Pabst’s office before buying the company, McDermott said there was “no need to involve the county attorney’s office any sooner than I did.”

“I really don’t think you have a story here,” McDermott said Friday. “I am entitled to make any venture I want.”

Missoula County communications coordinator Katie Klietz said the county commissioners were also first told about McDermott’s co-ownership at a Feb. 28 meeting.

County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said Friday she thought McDermott was “fully appropriate” in when and how he informed the board.

“I don’t think it was meant to be a hidden thing,” she said.

Records show Montana Electronics did more than $49,000 in business with the county in the 2016 fiscal year, including just over $35,000 with the sheriff’s office – the vast majority of which was a one-time equipment purchase of portable radios for detention officers. In the 2015 fiscal year, Montana Electronics did more than $121,000 in business with the county, roughly $7,200 of which was with the sheriff’s office.

Marks’ legal opinion said that while the sheriff’s office should not make further purchases from Montana Electronics, there was no law barring other county departments from working with them. McDermott said he is not involved in the operation of the company and as such won’t be involved in any transactions Montana Electronics has with other county departments.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.