Judge orders release of files related to investigation into former CCSO undersheriff

A district court judge ruled today to grant the petition asking for the release of the investigative file related to the case against former Cascade County Undersheriff John Stevens.

The Electric and other media organizations requested the file last fall and Stevens filed an objection in November on the grounds of his privacy. No other affected party filed an objection to the release of the file.

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On Feb. 6, Judge Greg Pinski filed an order granting the release of a redacted version of the file and overruling Stevens’ objection.

The Electric received the redacted file and is currently reviewing the documents.

According to Pinski’s order, the county clerk and recorder’s office began raising questions in 2018 about suspicious purchases and inventory practices at at the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office.

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An “internal audit uncovered evidence of potential criminal activity related to the purchase and improper retention of firearms, the Cascade County Attorney requested the Montana Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation conduct a criminal investigation. DCI agents interviewed numerous county employees and reviewed thousands of pages of county financial documents. DCI agents prepared investigative summaries and found fiscal polices were not followed and governmental property improperly retained by Stevens,” according to Pinski’s order.

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Stevens was charged with felony theft in March 2019 and in July, he entered a no contest plea to misdemeanor theft under a plea agreement and was sentenced to one-year probation.

Stevens recently petitioned the court to have the charge dismissed since he’s reached the halfway point and complied with the terms of his deferred sentence.

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Montana law allows for the release of confidential criminal justice information when a district court authorizes it when the “demands of individual privacy do not clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure.”

The law allows anyone to request the release of such information, prompting a judicial review.

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Pinski wrote in his order that the Montana Constitution provides the public the right to examine documents of all public bodies or agencies of state government or its subdivisions except in cases where demands of individual privacy clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure.

For this case, the county has agreed to release the confidential criminal information with appropriate redactions to individual addresses and financial account numbers, according to the order.

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Pinski writes that Stevens needed to show that he had a subjective or actual expectation of privacy and “that society is willing to recognize that expectation as reasonable. Stevens makes no such showing.”

Stevens was a “public official convicted of criminal misconduct in his official capacity related to his official job duties,” Pinski wrote in his order to release the file.

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In his objection, Stevens’ attorney argues that the file should remain confidential to protect others mentioned were not involved in the crimes. Pinski wrote in his order that most criminal investigations involve witnesses not charged with crimes and their names are not confidential, nor is the information they provide, particularly once the investigation is closed.

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“Stevens contends the investigation reports allege wrongdoing by others in the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department, but no charges were filed against those individuals. Putting aside whether Stevens has standing to assert the privacy rights of others or privacy rights in government documents, the audit report raises many questions about the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office fiscal practices while Edwards was an elected official and Stevens was his appointed undersheriff. The fundamental principles of transparency and accountability are central to any democracy. The public has a right to know how its taxes are spent and its government agencies are administered,” Pinski wrote in his order to release the redacted version of the file.

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“Montana law is clear. There is no expectation of privacy in a government official’s use of taxpayer money, use of government property, or theft of government property” Pinski wrote in his order. “Stevens has no expectation of privacy to assert. The public’s right to know is paramount.”