Ravalli County commissioner alleges intimidation by sheriff

2014-04-26T09:48:00Z 2014-07-05T20:21:54Z Ravalli County commissioner alleges intimidation by sheriffBy PERRY BACKUS Ravalli Republic The Billings Gazette
April 26, 2014 9:48 am  • 

HAMILTON – Ravalli County Commissioner Suzy Foss says the county’s sheriff backed her into a wall and verbally intimidated her in a crowded hallway last month.

Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman said Friday that was absolutely untrue.

Foss made the accusations in an email late Wednesday night she sent to Hoffman that began as an explanation of how she was gathering information on the potential of returning management of the county Office of Emergency Management to the sheriff’s office.

It quickly turned into what Foss called “the real issue here.”

“You walked me into a wall in a crowded hallway and made strong accusations and frankly your behavior was way of out of line,” Foss wrote. “I am an elected official of equal status, rank and responsibility as you.”

The alleged altercation happened just minutes before a public meeting at which the commission decided to place the county’s controversial interim treasurer, Valerie Stamey, on administrative leave.

Foss said Hoffman backed her into the wall in the hallway outside the commissioners’ meeting room and physically and verbally intimidated her.

***

In an interview Friday, Hoffman said Foss’ account of what happened in the hallway was “absolutely inaccurate. If I had mashed her against the wall and yelled and screamed at her, wouldn’t someone have noticed.”

The hallway was busy with people waiting to file into the meeting room before the public meeting started.

In the weeks leading up to that meeting, the commissioner and sheriff had an ongoing discussion over the need to call in state investigators to consider allegations being made about the treasurer’s office.

Foss had made a few phone calls to the state Attorney General’s Office inquiring about the potential for that.

Hoffman said he had explained to her the normal procedure for asking for a state investigation comes from either the sheriff’s or county attorney’s office. He said the county commission can ask either of the elected officials to start that process.

On the morning before the meeting, Hoffman said he had received another call from a state Department of Justice official saying Foss had made another inquiry. The official asked Hoffman if he needed them to come to Ravalli County to explain the situation.

Just before the commission meeting, Hoffman said he went up to Foss. She had already taken her place at the front of the room. He said he simply told her the answer to her query to the state was no and then asked her to stop calling them.

Hoffman said Foss followed him out into the hallway and put her hand on his shoulder to get him to stop. He said both of them then leaned up against the wall facing each other.

“Yes, I was upset,” Hoffman said. “I was frustrated, but not angry. I was mostly embarrassed.”

Hoffman said he told Foss that she had embarrassed him in front of his peers and that he was embarrassed as an elected official about the situation.

“I told her that I was sick and tired of her political nonsense,” he said.

***

Hoffman said the email he sent to Foss on Wednesday that precipitated her response came after he heard from several people that Foss was telling people he wanted access to the Office of Emergency Management’s budget.

“I heard that from more than one person,” he said. “It sounded right. I wanted her to know that can’t be the case. The money in OEM’s budget is earmarked just like 9-1-1 money.”

Hoffman said Foss’ email solidified his lack of trust in her.

“She has a very difficult time of connecting the dots on a lot of issues,” he said. “She struggles with details on many issues and she’s challenged with getting the details correct.”

In turn, Foss said in her email that she lost respect for the sheriff as well.

“Based on how you communicate with me, I cannot help but have concerns about how you manage those you deem less than you,” she wrote. “I will not let my personal loss of respect for you influence my decision on your budget and will always support our wonderful law enforcement officials. ... I simply am handing my hurt, anger, and frustration into the hands of our Lord and am praying for healing for us both.”

Foss said Friday she was disappointed with the investigative report into the county treasurer’s office provided by Judge Nels Swandal. She believes state investigators would have given a more thorough accounting.

Foss said the “real scandal” that occurred in treasurer’s office came at the hands of former employees who refused from the outset to assist Stamey.

“I was taught to ride for the brand,” Foss said. “Our decision (to hire Stamey) may have been disappointing, but once the decision was made they should have pulled up their big girl panties and done the job.”

Foss was also disappointed to hear the email she had sent to the sheriff had become public.

“I don’t know if it serves anyone well,” she said. “It was between Sheriff Hoffman and me. It should have stayed that way. I do stand behind my story. I was very thorough in my documentation. Frankly, I was pretty shook following the meeting.”

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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