A judge has ordered the City of Billings to pay the attorneys' fees and court costs for The Billings Gazette and KTVQ after the news organizations sued to reveal the names of three police officers disciplined for having sex with a clerk while on duty or on city property.
In his ruling issued Thursday afternoon, Yellowstone County District Court Judge Donald Harris found the city "knowingly assisted and participated in the police officers' attempts to thwart the public's right to know."
The suit was filed after police Chief Rich St. John and the city's attorney, Brent Brooks, agreed in April to release the names of Paul LaMantia, Matthew Edwards and Clint Anglin and details of the disciplinary action taken against them. However, before the documents could be released, the three officers filed a temporary restraining order against the city, seeking to bar the release.
"Inexplicably, the city ignored the positions of its own chief of police and city attorney, both of whom had concluded that the officers' names should be disclosed," Harris wrote in his ruling. "Instead, the city delayed the prompt disclosure of the officers' names and records sought by the Gazette by not opposing the officers' motions."
Martha Sheehy, the Billings attorney who represented the Gazette and KTVQ, said Thursday evening she was gratified by the decision.
"The court took a lot of care, a lot of time in making its ruling," she said.
She called it the right decision on behalf of the public and its right to know.
Harris, in his ruling, wrote, "the city shirked its constitutional obligation to inform the public about issues the public clearly had the right to know."
City Manager Chris Kukulski said the city hadn't yet seen the ruling and requested time to review it before commenting.
The fight over releasing the officers' identities started in April, after The Gazette learned that Billings Police leaders had disciplined three officers, two for having sex with a clerk while on duty and the other for having sex with the clerk while off duty but on city property.
The Gazette argued and the court ruled that the officers occupy a position of public trust and as such have no expectation of privacy in this case.
Each of the three officers had sex with same clerk in separate incidents between 2013 and 2016. The conduct was discovered during an unrelated investigation into drug thefts from the police evidence locker.
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When confronted by a supervisor early in 2018, the officers admitted they had sex with evidence technician Rawlyn Strizich, who was fired after confessing to stealing oxycodone pills and other prescription painkillers, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said in April.
St. John along with Brooks agreed to release the documents related to the officers' disciplinary actions and their names after The Gazette's and KTVQ's request.
It was at that point that the three officers sued for a temporary restraining order against the city to keep their names private. The judge faulted the city for not pushing back on the restraining order and delaying the "prompt disclosure of the officers' names and records."
During a May 14 hearing, Harris threw out the restraining order and ordered the release of the officers' names, giving them 48 hours to appeal his ruling before their names would be made public.
Rather than appeal, the officers voluntarily released their own names, LaMantia through a morning radio show and Edwards and Anglin through their attorneys.
Sheehy and representatives of the city will meet in the coming weeks to determine the exact amount the city will be required to pay. If they're unable to agree on an amount, the court will conduct a hearing to award it on Feb. 6.
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