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Justices: Settlement not private

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HELENA - A fragmented Montana Supreme Court ruled Friday the family of a murdered Helena woman has no right to privacy in the amount of money the government paid to settle the family's lawsuit against the state.

The high court ruled 4-3 in favor of news organizations that sued to make the settlement public.

Steve Pengra, widower of the victim, failed to show how the privacy rights of him and his teen-age daughter outweigh the public's right to know the cost of the payment they received, the court said.

The majority found "compelling policy reasons" for a state law mandating disclosure of settlements in suits filed against the government.

"Disclosure of such agreements provides an irreplaceable opportunity for taxpayers to assess the seriousness of unlawful and negligent activities of their public institutions," Chief Justice Jean Turnage wrote for the court. "The taxpayers are entitled to know how much they must pay for such actions or inactions."

The dissenting justices argued that the law requiring settlements be made public is unconstitutional and should be thrown out, because it contains an assumption that in every case the public's right to know is more important than the privacy of those getting the money.

The case arose from the kidnap and murder of Tamara Pengra on the outskirts of Helena in 1995. Russell VanKirk, serving a 110-year sentence for the crime, was on probation at the time of the killing.

Steve Pengra sued the state, alleging corrections officials had been negligent in supervising VanKirk, who already had a record of kidnapping, assault and rape.

Five days before a jury trial, the two sides settled and Pengra asked that the amount of the settlement be kept secret. He argued that public knowledge of how much money was paid would cause further emotional harm to him and his daughter.

District Judge Dorothy McCarter of Helena refused to seal the documents, but agreed to keep it confidential pending Pengra's appeal to the Supreme Court.

In its decision, the court agreed with McCarter that any harm to the Pengras because of news coverage had already occurred, and revealing the payment amount would do no more damage.

The justices rejected Pengra's claim that his minor daughter had a greater privacy right than an adult.

The family's claim of a right to privacy is "discredited by the surrounding circumstances of this case," Turnage wrote.

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