Minutes before a scheduled court hearing on the matter, the Yellowstone County Attorney’s office this morning turned over to The Billings Gazette documents related to allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation filed by a former employee against County Attorney Dennis Paxinos.
The county turned over the grievance and complaint filed by former employee Stacie Muhlbeier and a copy of the county’s investigation into the matter, which didn’t substantiate Muhlbeier’s claims.
Muhlbeier accused Paxinos, her former supervisor, of continued sexual harassment from 2000 to 2009 and an office sexual assault in 2003. Paxinos contends that the relationship was consensual. Muhlbeier turned over her copy of the county’s investigation report to The Gazette on Monday as well as a copy of a complaint she filed with the Montana Attorney General’s Office.
The Gazette requested the documents from the county in January and filed a lawsuit Feb. 2 after the county refused to release them. Had the county not turned over the documents this morning, it would have been ordered to do so by Judge Susan Watters.
In a half-hour hearing, Watters ruled that the county has the obligation to fulfill document requests, which includes weighing the privacy interests of those named in documents against the public’s right to know. If there are disagreements over what the county releases, then it’s appropriate to go to court, Watters said.
Watters also ordered the county to pay The Gazette’s legal bills in the matter. Gazette attorney Martha Sheehy will submit her bill to the county, and the county will have five days to file an objection, which would result in another court hearing.
The county contended that it has no authority “to decide whether anyone’s privacy interests outweigh the public’s right to know,” according to a letter sent to The Gazette’s attorney by Deputy County Attorney Kevin Gillen.
Watters rejected that argument.
“It is the county’s responsibility to go through the documents and determine what can be released,” she said. “I believe that the county failed to complete their duty that was required of them when the request was made to release the documents.”
In both her grievance and complaint filed with the county, Muhlbeier said she quit her job in November because of continued harassment by Paxinos. She asked for compensation from the county for “mental, physical and emotional distress” and wanted the county to pay her medical bills.