State investigators are examining whether a Musselshell County commissioner misused public resources, following accusations by local politicians that she directed county road crews to construct a road on private land leading to her family’s property.
The state Division of Criminal Investigation is looking into allegations that Nicole Borner misused county resources. The investigation was prompted by a request from Musselshell County Attorney Kevin Peterson, said Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes in an email Monday. Barnes declined to comment further.
Borner and her defenders in the county have called the allegations baseless and politically motivated. She has previously been on the opposite side of political fights with fellow Republicans in the county, including current Commissioner Tom Berry, who last month unsuccessfully sought a resolution to investigate the matter.
“This has some pretty strong political smell to it, and this was the best thing they could find,” Borner said, speaking after a February commission meeting at which the accusations were first alleged.
Referring to Berry and other former commissioners who have lined up against her, she added, “They’re just moving this farther down the road. They want to get the county attorney involved in this because the county attorney doesn’t like me, because of the last year of me being on the opposite side of anything they’ve done.”
Cameron Road lies west of Roundup in a sparsely populated, mostly flat expanse of sagebrush-dotted range land near the boundary of Golden Valley County. According to current county maps, it’s a roughly two-mile dirt road that runs south to Borner’s family’s plot of land from Horsethief Road, a winding gravel road that leads back to Roundup. Borner grew up on the roughly 40-acre parcel, which has remained in the family.
At issue is whether the county actually owns that road, which was the subject of almost $43,000 in maintenance and rebuilding work last summer, county road records show — more than half of the total funds spent on it since 2010.
Those accusing Borner of malfeasance have argued that an unmaintained dirt road, located one mile to the west and also connecting the otherwise landlocked acreage to Horsethief, is the one the county actually owns.
Between that property and the main road lies pasture land owned since 1962 by local rancher Joe Vescovi, along with several plots of Bureau of Land Management property he leases to graze cattle in the summer. Vescovi said he granted Borner’s family a “right of conveyance” in the early ‘80s, allowing them to use a small, two-track road to access their property, on the condition it could not be improved.
He said he wasn’t using the property when what he called the “new Cameron Road” was being rebuilt last August. It wasn’t until other landowners in the area started calling him that he learned of the road work being done.
“Someone could build a house out here between the time we left and when we came back and I wouldn’t know nothing about it,” he said. Adding that he rarely uses the road for his cattle-running operations, he said, “This was built for Nicole’s family.”
Tom Stockert, the county’s road department supervisor, said Tuesday that he was simply following a road priority list that was provided to him when he took the job in 2015. He denied ever being directed by Borner to work on the road, and said he believes the confusion may be due to an error introduced more than a decade ago when the county updated its official maps.
“Historically, that road has been maintained for over 40 years,” Stockert said. “We have a lot of county roads that only one county resident lives at the end of … the reason there’s a road there is because somebody lives at the end of it.”
Two former commissioners, Bob Goffena and Larry Lekse, have echoed Berry’s allegations.
Lekse on Monday provided a copy of a petition that he submitted to Peterson and the county sheriff’s office, accusing Borner of misusing county funds and requesting an investigation by the state. Peterson declined to specify whether he had forwarded the request to DCI, but acknowledged he had received the former commissioner’s petition.
“I can say that my office has been moving ahead on this, but that’s all I can say on it, because I don’t know what kind of investigation might result,” Peterson said Monday.
Barnes, the DOJ spokesman, said state investigators typically provide their findings to the county attorney who will determine whether a criminal prosecution is warranted. County attorneys typically make that decision in consultation with state prosecutors, he added, to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
“It’s not uncommon for county attorneys to ask DCI to investigate allegations of some kind of misconduct on the part of other county officials,” Barnes said. “If you’re a county official you certainly want to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.”