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The front entrance to the Billings Police Department offices in City Hall.

A District Court judge granted a temporary restraining order Monday barring the city of Billings from releasing the name of three police officers disciplined for having sex with a civilian employee on city property.

The city was set to release the names, along with other documents related to the case, at 3 p.m. Monday. Late Monday morning, however, Yellowstone County District Judge Michael Moses issued the restraining order at the request of lawyers representing the three patrolmen.

Moses, who set a hearing for May 3 on whether the injunction should be permanent, said the order itself is confidential, since it includes the names of the three officers who admitted having sex — two of them while on duty — with a Police Department clerk.

The injunction prohibited the city from releasing the names and other information requested by Last Best News and other news organizations.

Deputy City Attorney Thomas Pardy said on Thursday that he had determined that the information was public and would be released at 3 p.m. on Monday.

The information was not immediately released, he said, because as with any such release, he would have had to redact protected information like Social Security numbers, phone numbers and the names of third parties.

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Public information requests generally take 10 days to two weeks to process, he said, and in this case he would have been scrambling on Friday and part of Monday to get the redactions done.

“Two days would have been a pretty fast turnaround,” he said.

Pardy said the three officers were represented by the Scheveck Law Firm, of Billings.

Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick said he spoke briefly with KTVQ news director Jon Stepanek about the possibility of jointly intervening in the case to argue for the release of what should be public information.

As for the request for a permanent injunction barring release of the officers’ names, Erhlick said, “we definitely are going to try to challenge that in whatever way we can.”

The suspensions without pay for the three officers came to light last week, but only after Last Best News ask Police Chief Rich St. John to confirm rumors to that effect. St. John said two of the officers were suspended for two weeks without pay because they had sex with the female clerk while on duty and on city property — in the basement of City Hall, which is used for records storage.

The third officer was suspended without pay for one week because he was off duty but on city property at the time. St. John said that officer had sexual relations with the clerk in a police patrol car — “or close to or around it.”

However, St. John later told the Gazette that the officer accused of having sex in the patrol car was on duty and that the encounter took place in a private lot. That officer was suspended for two weeks, he told the Gazette.

He further told the Gazette that of the two officers who had a sexual encounter in the basement of City Hall, one was on-duty, which is why he was suspended for two weeks, while the other was off-duty and was suspended for one week. St. John could not be reached Monday to explain the discrepancies.


 

          

Monday, April 23, 2018 - The Waffle House shooter had an earlier weapons arrest near the White House. Also on our Monday

rundown: new eviction data underscores America’s affordable-housing crisis; plus we will take you to a state where one county

is putting juvenile justice under public health.



 

Big Sky Connection


 

 

 

Click on the image to listen to today's top stories.

 

Eric Tegethoff

April 23, 2018

HELENA, Montana - This week is National Park Week, and one of the greatest attractions to parks is the wildlife. There's one animal, in particular, many park-goers would love to have the chance to see: the grizzly bear. But since they were taken off the Endangered Species list last year and Wyoming proposed allowing grizzly hunts, conservation groups are concerned the mammals are facing a grave threat. 

While there are many reasons groups want the bears protected from hunts, Stephanie Adams, Yellowstone program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, says a bear shot in Wyoming could be a bear visitors to Yellowstone National Park in Montana never get to experience.

"It would be really short-sighted, especially of Wyoming, to allow someone to shoot a bear that could potentially be one that is seen by hundreds of thousands of people in the wild," she says. 

Wyoming's proposal would allow hunters to kill 24 grizzlies this fall. There are about 700 of the bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the species reproduces slowly, causing concern among wildlife groups that hunts could send grizzlies to the brink of extinction again. 

Idaho also is considering allowing grizzly hunts. Montana decided against this proposal earlier this year.

Adams says U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's decision to delist the species came with the understanding that the three states these grizzlies call home would work collectively to protect them.

"Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho all agreed to work together to manage this population," she adds. "However, Wyoming's really aggressive plan to harvest 24 bears this fall could impact the ability of the two other states to manage bears in the future."

The National Parks Conservation Association and other groups have sued over the federal government's delisting decision. Adams says people, including Montanans, can submit comments at npca.org/grizzlies to Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and the state's Game and Fish Commission on the hunting proposal through April 30.


 

St. John

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John confirmed Wednesday that three patrol officers have been punished for having sex with an evidence clerk on city property.

Three Billings police officers who admitted having sex on city property with a civilian employee of the department were given either one- or two-week suspensions without pay, Police Chief Rich St. John said Wednesday.

St. John did not release the names of the three patrol officers, all of them males with roughly eight to 10 years on the force, but he said the woman they had sexual relations with was Rawlyn Strizich, who was fired in February after confessing that she stole oxycodone pills and other prescription painkillers from the department’s evidence locker.

Strizich was working as a clerk in the department’s downtown City Hall offices at the time of the incidents with the police officers, St. John said. She started working in City Hall in 2013 and transferred to the evidence locker, at 4845 Midland Road, in 2016.

After he was asked by Last Best News to confirm reports of the suspensions, St. John said he spoke with Deputy City Attorney Thomas Pardy, who is researching state law to determine whether the city is obligated or has the discretion to identify the officers. There was no clear, immediate answer, Pardy said, because the incidents for which they were punished were policy violations, not criminal offenses.

“We’re talking really good officers who made a bad decision — a really, really bad decision,” St. John said.

Pardy said he hoped to make a determination on releasing the officer’s names no later than the end of the work day on Thursday.

St. John said two of the officers were suspended for two weeks without pay because they had sex with Strizich while on duty and on city property — in the basement of City Hall, which is used for records storage.

The third officer was suspended without pay for one week because he was off duty but on city property at the time. St. John said that officer had sexual relations with Strizich in a police patrol car — “or close to or around it.”

Each officer was accused of and admitted to having one sexual encounter with Strizich, and no other officers were involved, St. John said.

Because the department is shorthanded, St. John said, he gave the commanders who supervise the officers discretion on when to allow the suspensions to be served, but the suspensions have to be served all at once, not one or two days at a time. St. John said he ordered the suspensions three weeks ago, adding, “I don’t know if they served their time yet.”

St. John said he decided on the discipline himself and it was approved by Karla Stanton, the city’s human resources director. City policy requires the HR director to sign off on any suspensions of more than one day, St. John said.

City Administrator Bruce McCandless said he was told of the incidents immediately after the officers were disciplined, but as of Wednesday afternoon he hadn’t yet told the mayor and City Council about the incidents.

St. John said the one- and two-week suspensions were serious punishment for serious violations. Some police departments would have fired the officers, he said, “because it’s such an affront to integrity and ethics.”

St. John said the revelations about the officers’ activities arose out of the investigation of thefts at the evidence locker. Strizich told her supervisor on Jan. 20 — a few days before an audit of the evidence locker was to begin — that she had been stealing oxycodone and other opioids.

Strizich was initially suspended and then fired on Feb. 6, after the audit was completed. She has not yet been charged with a crime, St. John said, but police investigators will probably submit their evidence to the county attorney’s office soon, and attorneys there will decide whether to pursue charges against her.

In the course of investigating the evidence locker thefts, St. John said, “there were some rumors flying around” about officers having had sexual relations with Strizich, and when asked, she identified the three officers.

All three officers waived due-process hearings and admitted to the policy violations, St. John said, and he met separately with all three of them on the same day, telling them of their suspensions without pay.

“That took place several weeks ago and that matter is closed,” St. John said, adding that what the officers did “was an ancillary policy violation … that didn’t have anything to do with the theft of drugs.” He later described the incidents as “purely policy violations — no criminal action whatsoever.”

St. John said he handed down the suspensions for two reasons.

“The point for me is to correct behavior and to tell the rest of the department that this sort of behavior is unacceptable,” he said.

St. John said he also warned the officers, when he told them of their suspensions, that there was a chance that what they had done might be made public, and it was possible that they would be publicly identified.

“It’s obviously a sensitive area for all involved,” he said.

Big Sky Connection

 

 

 

Click on the image for the audio.

Eric Tegethoff

April 20, 2018

HELENA, Montana - The public has a few more days to comment on a change to the Bureau of Land Management's methane waste prevention rule. Critics say the change will leave the regulation toothless. 

The current rule, which took half a decade to create, was designed to cut down on the venting, flaring and leaking of natural gas from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands. It's estimated Obama-era rules would have saved taxpayers $330 million a year, the estimated value of the gas that escapes into the atmosphere. 

Pat Wilson is a retired rancher who used to live near an oil operation in Montana. He says efforts to undo this rule are part of the new administration's short-sighted approach to land management.

"It's part of the current culture of thumbing one's nose at science, and thumbing one's nose at any possibility that human action can result in environmental harm," says Wilson. "It's just so wrong-headed."

The BLM, under the direction of Ryan Zinke's Interior Department, says the rule as it stands now is too cumbersome for companies. 

Wilson is a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, which delivered a petition with more than 1,000 signatures opposing changes to Montana's congressional delegation in early April. The public has until Monday to comment on the rule change at 'regulations.gov.'

Wilson ended up moving out of Montana because his wife's asthma was exacerbated by an oil-drilling operation less than a thousand feet from his front door. He says her condition became so bad over the last decade that she once fainted.

"It became increasingly apparent to her especially, and also to me, that if she's going to live through this thing, we're going to have to move," he says. "So we did."

In six western states, including Montana, more than 74,000 people live within a half-mile of an oil or gas facility on public lands.