Former Missoula County Undersheriff Josh Clark, who has long had a contentious relationship with the current Sheriff T.J. McDermott — including twice unsuccessfully opposing him for the sheriff's job — has sued the county for the release of internal documents related to a captain's off-duty conduct.
Clark's lawsuit, dated Aug. 22, seeks the release of all emails, text messages and written communications between county officials regarding Missoula Sheriff's Captain of Training Bill Burt, the use of alcohol and county vehicles. The lawsuit does not detail specific events.
"He's got a special interest in the integrity of the the police in general, and the sheriff's office in particular," said attorney Quentin Rhoades, who represents Clark.
In a closed administrative meeting on Tuesday, the Missoula County Board of Commissioners decided to hire outside counsel in Missoula attorney Steve Carey.
Reached by the Missoulian on Tuesday, Carey said the county will abide by the request, but a Missoula judge's previous ruling on the release of that same information has caused confusion. That ruling came in a case in which the Missoulian requested the release of documents related to Burt, the use of alcohol and the use of county vehicles. Nearly a year ago, Judge Robert "Dusty" Deschamps ruled the documents should be withheld while the 2018 election was underway.
In July, Deschamps said in an order "the issues in this matter are Moot," and closed the case. Because Deschamps' order was ambiguous to the parties involved, the Missoulian has appealed the matter to the state Supreme Court.
"Missoula County intends to comply with the law," Carey said on Tuesday. "Missoula County complied with the law (in 2018) by withholding the information pursuant to a court order. Now, there is some confusion surrounding the court's ultimate ruling. We will get that sorted out and provide this information if allowed."
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Clark's August complaint alleges he requested the documents from the county in September and November in 2018, and again in February, with no response.
"We tried to resolve it in an informal matter so we'll have to follow a more formal route," Rhoades said.
However, McDermott on Tuesday provided the Missoulian with a copy of his response to Clark's request, dated Oct. 8, 2018, in which the request is denied while the matter was under Deschamps' review. The letter also states that McDermott is unaware of any existing emails or text messages that his request would produce.
"The letter points out the pending District Court action and the considerable cost associated with an overly broad request," McDermott said in an email late Tuesday.
Rhoades also represents Clark is his 2015 lawsuit alleging discrimination by McDermott. That case, which follows a decision by the Montana Human Rights Bureau that McDermott did not discriminate against Clark after McDermott's election in 2014, is ongoing. Clark lost to McDermott in the 2014 sheriff's election, and again in the 2018 primary.
Clark's requests for the information on Burt, which Rhoades said Clark obtained from sources inside the sheriff's office, dates back to the 2018 election of which Deschamps was wary in his ruling. Asked Tuesday about Clark's intentions, Rhoades said his client considers himself a "watchdog" for the public.
"He does have an agenda, it's integrity in law enforcement," Rhoades said. "That's what he has been pursuing and that's what I expect him to continue to pursue."