Five current or former members of the Lake County sheriff’s office in Montana have filed a lawsuit against the sheriff and others claiming they were retaliated against over efforts to expose corruption.
The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Tuesday includes claims that some members of the department illegally shot and killed big-game animals and one had illegally altered a firearm from a rifle to a machine gun.
The workers said they were reprimanded, demoted, denied promotions and subjected to a hostile work environment while trying to expose what they called law-breaking and corruption.
“They have not been retaliated against,” Sheriff Jay Doyle told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The lawsuit was filed by Deputies Levi Read and Ben Woods, officers Mike Gehl and Steve Kendley, and former officer Terry Leonard. It names Doyle, Undersheriff Dan Yonkin, Detective Mike Sargeant and Deputy Dan Duryee as defendants.
Messages left at the sheriff’s office for Yonkin and Sergeant were not immediately returned. Duryee was not on duty Wednesday and couldn’t be reached.
Doyle issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying he had not been served with the lawsuit but he was disappointed that it was filed. The employees bypassed filing a grievance with their union and instead filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified monetary damages, he said.
The lawsuit was filed as the department faces several state investigations into behavior by its officers and after a contested 2010 election in which Doyle defeated Kendley.
The lawsuit alleges Doyle, Sargeant and Duryee are members of an illegal poaching organization called the “Coyote Club.” The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks investigated allegations of poaching among officers. No charges have been filed.
The state Department of Justice has undertaken separate investigations of Doyle for obstruction of justice, and of former Undersheriff Karey Reynolds for perjury. Meanwhile, the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Council has multiple ongoing investigations into Lake County law enforcement, including one of Duryee over his claims that he served in the U.S. Marines.
Attorney Richard Buley of Missoula said his clients filed the lawsuit because they felt the allegations of wrongdoing within the department were not being sufficiently addressed.
“They were hoping some law enforcement agency with jurisdiction – especially the attorney general’s office – would do something about it. It never happened and it doesn’t appear it’s going to happen,” Buley said.
The lawsuit said Kendley was retaliated against after alleging to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that Duryee had illegally altered a firearm registered with the sheriff’s department from a rifle to a machine gun.
It also says all the plaintiffs, and Read in particular, were retaliated against when they complained that Duryee was placed in command of the SWAT team based on his claim that he had served in the Marines.
The lawsuit alleges Woods, Gehl and Read were suspended without pay while Kendley and Gehl were demoted. All four officers received written reprimands, the lawsuit said.
The plaintiffs “have been ostracized to the extent that other officers within the sheriff’s department refuse to provide ‘back up’ to the plaintiffs,” court documents state.
Doyle, however, said none of the plaintiffs had talked to him about the issue.
The lawsuit also alleges Leonard’s free speech rights were violated by the seizure of his personal computer and equipment with the sole purpose of silencing him before the election involving Doyle and Kendley.
Leonard had used his computer to create a website to inform potential voters of the conduct by the defendants. Lake County Attorney Mitch Young authorized a warrant to search Leonard’s home and seize his computer in September 2010.
The warrant did not authorize search of the computer, but the lawsuit alleges Yonkin copied Leonard’s hard drive without informing him.
The suit alleges a warrant allowing a search of the hard drive was applied for on May 6, 2011, but Leonard claims the drive was searched before then.
Doyle said a detective told him he “preserved the hard drive, but nothing was searched until the second warrant was obtained.”
Doyle said he takes the allegations seriously and they will be investigated by outside, independent law enforcement agencies.
“As your sheriff, I will continue to ensure that such allegations are acted upon promptly and fairly,” he wrote. “Unresolved allegations against any officer tarnish the integrity of all.”