HAMILTON – In a surprise bombshell Tuesday, embattled Ravalli County treasurer Valerie Stamey accused a county commissioner of corruption and other county officials of illegally selling tax liens in a statement delivered to a packed county commission meeting room.
Stamey walked out of the meeting immediately after reading the statement without further comment.
In the statement, Stamey said there has been “an orchestrated and vile campaign to destroy my character” in the newspapers “to protect corrupt commissioner J.R. Iman, who has been knowingly protected by (commission chair) Greg Chilcott.”
Immediately after the meeting, Iman said he had no idea what Stamey was talking about.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said he was completely taken by surprise by her statement, which included allegations that he had ignored her pleas to do something about Iman.
“I had zero idea that that was coming,” Burrows said.
The meeting was on the agenda as the treasurer’s weekly update and Burrows said he expected to hear a status report on the office’s months-long backlog.
Stamey’s statement did not include any sort of office update.
Instead, she said her office was a “crime scene of past illegal activity.”
Stamey alleged that former county treasurer Joanne Johnson had removed files to hide the illegal sale of tax liens by her deputies, Linda Isaac and Mary Borden. The three are former employees who quit after Stamey was appointed to the position in September to fill out the term of Marie Keeton, who resigned due to personal issues.
All three women have complained that Stamey created a hostile workplace.
Since being appointed, Stamey has come under scrutiny because her office fell months behind in preparing the county’s financial reports.
Last week, the commission learned that Stamey faced a 2010 default judgment in South Carolina that claimed she cashed the same $18,149 check twice.
On Friday, Chilcott informed Stamey – in a hand-delivered letter – that the commission has set a meeting for 11 a.m. Thursday to consider her involvement in the South Carolina judgment. Chilcott also requested a written explanation from Stamey about the lawsuit, which was to be delivered to the commission by 4 p.m. Tuesday.
In a short letter to Chilcott on Tuesday afternoon, Stamey said she would neither provide the commission with a written response nor attend Thursday’s meeting on the matter.
She said legal counsel had advised her to take that course because Chilcott had not followed “proper notification procedures.”
She did not elaborate on what she believed to be the proper procedures.
Also Tuesday, the commission took an additional step by setting a 1 p.m. Thursday meeting to consider an investigation into the treasurer’s office.
Burrows said he envisioned an investigation by a third party, which may be the state attorney general’s office.
The decision to consider an investigation was made before Stamey made her allegations Tuesday morning that included the statement: “I have done nothing illegal, so get out of my private life.”
Stamey said she planned to ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation to examine her allegations of wrongdoing by Iman and others.
In her statement, Stamey said Iman threatened her when she first attempted to gain access to county accounts at First Interstate Bank and prohibited her from knowing the combination of the treasurer’s safe.
Stamey said her pleas for help from Chilcott and Burrows “fell on deaf ears.”
Stamey also said she asked the county’s chief financial officer, Klarryse Murphy, about the missing files and was told they had been removed for an audit.
Stamey said she would demand that Johnson and Murphy return missing files and “any other secreted away or removed files personally to me.”
Other demands in her statement included:
• The commission must pay for a security guard at her office to protect public records. If the commission refuses, she said she’ll seek a court order.
• All signatories but her own must be removed from the treasurer’s account. It that didn’t happen, Stamey said she would change banks.
• She wants to suspend employee Bonnie Dugan with pay, “as her continued presence in the office will contaminate the necessary investigations.” Stamey said Dugan intimidated an employee attempting to catalogue the missing files.
• Stamey said she will have no further electronic communication with other county departments. All future correspondence must be non-electronic writing directly addressed to Stamey.
• She said she will not allow any further contact between commissioners and her department’s employees during work hours.
“I will establish office protocols in accordance with Montana state law for the proper disbursement and keeping of all public funds,” Stamey said. “Montana law has been held in contempt by this commission and by prior county treasurers. This will end today.”
Stamey told the commission she fears for her personal safety and has made arrangements for personal security.
Stamey concluded by thanking commissioners Suzy Foss and Ron Stoltz for their support.
As she left the room, Stamey refused to provide a copy of her statement to the commissioners’ clerk. Copies of the statement were later handed out by former county planning board chair Jan Wisniewski.
After Stamey’s statement, several people in the audience asked the commission to consider a forensic audit for both the time period that Stamey had referred to and for the months since she took over the office.
Former County Commissioner Kathleen Driscoll said she was disappointed that Stamey had not provided an update on what’s occurring in her office.
She called Stamey’s statement “a wonderful example of deflection. … I had hoped to hear what she’s been doing rather than hearing her pull everyone else into the swamp with her.”
Lavonne Miller, former treasurer Joanne Johnson’s sister, said all three women mentioned by Stamey were devoted employees and had no reason to do what Stamey alleged.
“Whatever Val is trying to pull out of the slums is not true,” she said.
Dan Floyd said he found it unsettling that three key people in the treasurer’s office quit around the same time. He urged the commission to consider the allegations and bring in outside financial experts to take a look.
Chris Hockman said he’s closely studied the past four annual audits on the county’s books by a Missoula firm and he’s not seen any evidence of wrongdoing.
“That allays my fears,” he said.
On her way to lunch after the meeting concluded, county CFO Murphy stopped long enough to read Stamey’s statement and refute claims about her office.
“She never asked me about an audit or these files,” Murphy said. “I didn’t secret anything away. I don’t have access to the treasurer’s drive.”
Murphy said her files have always been available at any time to any of the commissioners.
“I’m an open book,” she said.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Stamey sent an email to most newspapers in the state, as well as major papers in Seattle, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., that contained a copy of her statement.
“Valarie (sic) Stamey has been under constant character assault since entering office meant to dissuade her from staying in office and now we know why,” the email read.