DILLON - After nearly three years of court battles, the Montana Standard recently obtained videotapes and the officer's report of a late night 2001 drunken driving arrest of Beaverhead Commissioner Donna Sevalstad.
As District Judge Loren Tucker wrote in the Jan. 10, 2002, order releasing the evidence, Sevalstad "has no reason to be proud of the events which are recorded, but overall, the events and conduct recorded and reported are generally unremarkable when compared to conduct that sometimes is encountered in DUI offenders."
The videotape and officer's report capture Sevalstad asking how much money it would take "to give me a break" shortly after entering the officer's vehicle. On the way to Boulder jail, she also asked the officer if she was "an interesting prospect" and later said "this night will change your life."
The remainder of the tape and report showed a relatively cooperative Sevalstad as she was driven to the jail and booked.
The release of the information marked the end of a court battle that focused on the fundamental issues of the public's right to know versus an individual's right to privacy.
The newspaper contended that the public is authorized to see investigative information if the public's right to know outweighs the individual's right to privacy. In this case, since Sevalstad was an elected official and therefore had less of an expectation to privacy, the newspaper said the scale should tip toward the public.
Gerry O'Brien, editor of the Montana Standard, said the main issue is accountability of public officials.
"We had heard through the grapevine that something was amiss in this particular DUI arrest and we felt obligated to check it out. But the heart of our appeal goes to accountability of all public officials and public records. Taxpayers need to know who is making the decisions with their money and are they accountable for those decisions. In our view, they are held to a higher standard of public scrutiny."
Sevalstad's lawyer countered that even public officials have private lives that "should be protected from the prying eyes of the right-to-knowers" and that since the arrest had nothing to do with her position as a county commissioner, she should have a "reasonable expectation of privacy."
The Montana Supreme Court decided in the newspaper's favor in November 2003.
"While Sevalstad's driving habits may not pertain to her position as a county commissioner, her decision to violate the law directly relates to her ability to effectively perform her job duties," said the court's decision. "That is, Sevalstad's decision to violate the law questions her judgment."
"Society will not permit complete privacy and unaccountability when an elected official is accused of misconduct which is related to the performance of his or her duties," the decision stated. "Her violation of the law may also have an effect on her ability to work effectively with her peers and to properly supervise other employees. …Therefore, we conclude that because the information sought by the Montana Standard relates to Sevalstad's ability to perform her duties as a county commissioner, any expectation of privacy she has regarding such information is unreasonable."
At the time of Sevalstad's arrest, she was also facing charges resulting from a confrontation she'd had with her ex-husband and his girlfriend. The newspaper said it was entitled to the information because Sevalstad's arrest directly related to her ability to carry out her duties as a county commissioner
"As a result of this action, the law is now clear that the public has an undeniable right to obtain confidential criminal justice information pertaining to actions taken by its elected officials that relate to their ability to effectively perform their job duties, even though that information derives from actions taken by the elected official outside the scope of their official duties," the Montana Standard said in its affidavit seeking attorney's fees from Sevalstad.
Sevalstad and others agree that she now has her life in order.
Sevalstad said this week that she was going through a difficult time in her life, with a divorce and ensuing child custody battle. Sevalstad said she no longer drinks alcohol.
"I've changed," she said. "That was a good wake-up call for me."
Sevalstad said she fought the newspaper's request to view the videotape because she felt that the information should not be open for public review.
"I didn't think it was any of the newspaper's business," she said. "I had pled guilty to the DUI and I just wanted it to be done. I knew I had made a mistake I had said I was guilty, what more did they want?"
Once the court fight over whether the video should be made public, Sevalstad said the process just continued through to the Montana Supreme Court.
"Once it was engaged, I couldn't stop," she said.
Beaverhead County Commission Chairman Mike McGinley said Sevalstad has turned her life around and is doing an excellent job of serving the county, including representation on a several statewide committees.
"She's really doing great," said McGinley. "She had a low point in her life, but in Montana tradition, she grabbed her bootstraps and pulled herself up."
"How many people have gone that low and been able to pick themselves back up?" said McGinley. "I think it shows a little character."
Since that time, McGinley said Sevalstad has been reelected to her commission post.
"The people of Beaverhead County put her back in the job because they knew she was doing her job," he said.