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Hilton, goats, sprinklers, lawyers all enter into TRA discussion

Hilton, goats, sprinklers, lawyers all enter into TRA discussion

Six applicants for the executive director position

HARDIN - The board that oversees the vacant jail in Hardin attended to a variety of housekeeping matters - literally in one case - during a meeting Monday afternoon.

The Two Rivers Authority board announced that it has received six applications for its executive director position, and it heard reports on how much it would cost to continue insuring the empty jail.

The board also voted to reimburse Michael Hilton, the discredited leader of the organization that supposedly wanted to lease the jail, for the money he spent on TRA representatives when they met with him in California in September.

In addition, the board decided to have the carpet cleaned in a jail office used by Becky Convery, the lawyer who used to work for the TRA, and to send her the bill.

Board treasurer Bob Crane said the carpet had to be cleaned to remove urine odors. Convery, the former Hardin city attorney who did some contract work for the TRA, could not be reached for comment, but Crane said the mess apparently was caused by several cats that Convery had in her office.

Becky Shay, one of the six director applicants and the former spokeswoman for Hilton's American Police Force, who also had an office in the jail, said Convery operated an informal pet rescue and at one time or another also had a goat, a gerbil and a rabbit in the office.

The TRA is the tax-funded economic development agency for the city of Hardin. It built the 464-bed prison in 2007 by issuing $27 million in revenue bonds, but it has sat empty since then.

Hilton and his fictitious company - he admitted in court in California last week that APF never issued shares and had no assets - proposed taking over the facility and operating a jail and a training center for military and law enforcement personnel.

Hilton signed a tentative contract with the TRA in September after meeting in California with Convery, former TRA Director Greg Smith and board Vice President Al Peterson.

While they were there, Hilton paid for two nights' lodging for the three of them, plus one lunch and two dinners, for a total of $1,504. Board members discussed paying back Hilton to erase any possible conflicts of interest and to make a clean break with him.

But, because Hilton owes $700,000 in a civil judgment in California involving a real estate scam, the board decided not to send Hilton the check until conferring with the judge in the case.

Smith, who made the initial contacts with Hilton, was placed on paid leave on Sept. 11 and formally resigned as the TRA director on Oct. 5.

Shay, a former Billings Gazette reporter who briefly worked for Hilton, was the only previously announced candidate to succeed Smith. On Monday, the board provided very little information on the other five applicants and went into a closed meeting to discuss their resumes. The applicants are:

• Amanda Boatright, who lives in Billings but grew up in Hardin. She has bachelor's degrees in economics and business management and a master's of business administration .

• Dan Kern of Hardin, a former executive director of the TRA.

• Rich Solberg of Hardin, the owner of an AM radio station.

• Jeffrey S. McDowell of Missoula, who has 20 years of experience in corporate and marketing communications.

• Jason A. Jochems of Big Sky, a property manager for Alpine Property Management.

Board member Tim Murphy, chairman of the hiring committee, said he hopes the board can hire a new director within a month.

The board also learned Monday that it could cost more than $65,000 a year to continue insurance coverage for the jail. The previous policy on the jail expired on Sunday.

Last month, the board said it had about $55,000 to get it through the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Rene LeVeaux of Billings, representing HUB International, an insurance company, said the basic annual premium for insuring the $21 million jail property would be about $42,000. With other fees added on, plus excess coverage of $4 million, the total would come to $65,987.

Crane said after the meeting that the TRA appears to be responsible for insurance coverage, but he wants to talk to Michael Harling of Dallas, the attorney for the bondholders, and with James Parkey, the owner of Corplan Corrections of Argyle, Texas, who put together the deal to build the prison, to see if the bondholders or other parties with an interest in the jail could pay for the insurance, or at least a portion of it.

Crane said he would also speak with Harling and Parkey about whether they want to pay for utilities at the prison. The heat has been turned off since last April or May, but, if there is no heat this winter, the water will have to be drained from the fire-prevention sprinkler system, which would increase insurance costs.

Murphy also reported to the board that state Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, sponsor of a bill that encouraged the construction of horse slaughterhouses in Montana, contacted him about the possibility of having such a facility in the Hardin industrial park developed by the TRA.

Murphy said Butcher told him that a Chinese delegation interested in building a horse slaughterhouse will be coming to Montana this month and would meet with Hardin representatives if they were interested in the prospect.

Murphy said Smith had previously spoken with Butcher about the possibility. The board asked Murphy to get more information on the planned visit.

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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