Dominoes continue to fall around the Western Montana Fair rodeo as the sponsor of a benefit women's rodeo clinic says it's pulling up stakes.
Chicks n Chaps, which raised $50,000 for breast cancer victims at the past two fairs, announced Thursday it will seek another venue for its event.
The move comes days after Missoula County severed ties with the Missoula Stampede rodeo committee, which helped launch the women's clinic in 2008.
Shannone Hart, a co-founder of Chicks n Chaps, said the decision was prompted by the county's response to revelations of fair manager Scot Meader's drunken revelry in a Great Falls hotel last January at the Montana Circuit Finals rodeo, and to allegations that Meader groped two women that night.
According to Meader, county officials dealt with the matter internally when it surfaced in April. He called it "a life-changing experience."
"The county treated me very respectfully," he was quoted as saying.
That didn't sit well with Hart.
"I was shocked to read that the county showed respect to Mr. Meader when allegations came forward that he had inappropriately touched two women, because I was one of the women he inappropriately touched," she said.
Speaking for Chicks n Chaps, which expanded its clinics to three other rodeos in Montana in 2009, Hart said, "We don't feel the county or Scot Meader have the women's best interests in mind if they are going to turn their heads when employees behave inappropriately."
Commissioners, who received notification Thursday of Chicks n Chaps' decision to withdraw their event from the fairgrounds, expressed surprise at the accusation. Commission chair Michele Landquist said she hadn't heard about the Great Falls incident until this week.
"We have extended an invitation to Shannone Hart to come and meet with us to talk about the incident," commissioner Jean Curtiss said. Meanwhile, "we're doing our own due diligence to see if county staff handled the issue in the right way or more needs to happen."
The meeting will be closed to protect the privacy of both Hart and Meader, who has not waived his right to privacy.
Meader said he consulted with an attorney Thursday morning.
"The issue's behind us and we're moving on," he said.
The incident allegedly took place at the Heritage Inn in Great Falls, headquarters for the circuit finals rodeo and a place where alcohol flows freely on nights following the performance at Four Seasons Arena. Committees from several Montana rodeos rent hospitality suites to entertain rodeo-goers. The Missoula Stampede committee and Chicks n Chaps went in on a suite together for the 2009 rodeo.
Hart said that in front of "numerous witnesses," an intoxicated Meader stumbled up to her and "almost fell over."
"He proceeded to grope me as he hung on me and slapped me on the backside," she said. "At the time I had very strong words for Mr. Meader, and he immediately (said), ‘We're all friends, we're all friends.' And then he almost fell over the balcony."
Hart said it wasn't until the following day that she learned another woman, a rodeo queen, had a similar experience involving Meader. Although that account was confirmed by others, the woman could not be reached for comment Friday.
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Hart said she regrets that she didn't follow up on the incident until much later.
"Naively, I wasn't sure I wanted that kind of bad press to come out for Chicks n Chaps," she said.
Meader, who didn't remember details of the night, said he heard nothing about the groping accusations until April. As negotiations with Chicks n Chaps began for the 2009 fair - talks that became contentious and were ultimately mediated by the commissioners - "e-mails were floating around" referring to the Great Falls incident.
He said he immediately reported to the county's chief administrative officer Dale Bickell, who this week characterized the fair manager as "incredibly remorseful and mortified."
"We had a very long conversation about it, to the point where I'm certain that Scot won't have an incident like that again," Bickell said. "That was his reprimand at that point."
Meanwhile, Hart was still reluctant to press the issue for fear, she said, that the commissioners would pull the plug on Chicks n Chaps at the fairgrounds. Instead, they mediated the troubled contract negotiations, reducing the fee of holding the event from $4,000 to about $2,400.
It went off successfully, raising $30,000 that Hart said was distributed through pro rodeo's national "Tough Enough to Wear Pink" program to hospitals and breast cancer victims in western Montana. Chicks n Chaps also expanded to three other rodeos in Montana, raising a total of $55,000.
Finally, in October, Hart sat down with Bickell to talk about the program. She said she also told him her version of Meader's alleged indiscretions in Great Falls.
"She wanted to make sure I had known about it," Bickell said. He told her he had, and that it had been dealt with.
"I really thought the matter was closed," he said.
When it resurfaced this week, Bickell asked the commissioners if they remembered him reporting it to them.
"They couldn't recall anything specific," he said. "In my ordinary course of how I do these things, I would. Apparently I did not."
Hart said she'd love to meet with the commissioners to talk about it. She doesn't hide the fact that her disgruntlement is in part over the way the Stampede committee was treated. Bickell and Meader said a unified voice was needed in promoting the fair and rodeo, and the committee was too often striking out on its own, negotiating and even signing sponsorship contracts.
Meanwhile, Chicks n Chaps is looking at two alternative sites in and near Missoula to hold its 2010 event, and will continue to raise money at other Montana rodeos.
Hart and co-chair Staci Flynn accompanied Stampede committee members Kyle Stensrud and Kory Mytty to a convention in Las Vegas at the National Finals Rodeo last month to meet with potential sponsors.
"We are in the process of actually going national with Chicks n Chaps," she said.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.