by Travis Mateer
If I could have asked lead attorney, Lance Jasper, one question after yesterday’s court hearing, a hearing in which the Mineral County Attorney’s Office AND Sheriff’s Office faced serious allegations, it would have been this: was it worth it, Lance?
My partner in covering alleged crime fighters took copious notes as I took brief naps and drew this very professional picture of a few of the main players, including the presiding judge, Shane Vannatta.
Unfortunately my artistic skills didn’t capture the tense drama that played out in Mineral County yesterday, where the hulk of a man you see on the right, Deputy Attorney, Wally Congdon, got reprimanded by the judge, along with the “selfless” lawyer, Lance Jasper.
I’m putting “selfless” in “yeah, right” quotes because I know, like I’m sure many in the PACKED court room know, that the Jasper family is a very influential family in Mineral County, and that influence leans heavy toward the FUNKY side of the Sheriff’s race, if you know what I mean.
The first legal fight Judge Vannatta had to parse out was the intent by Jasper to call witnesses. Wally Congdon was quite upset at this prospect, claiming his office wasn’t prepared for witnesses. Also a sore point for Wally was the fact Lance didn’t say hi to him before the hearing.
A sore point for Lance Jasper is the 200 hundred hours he has invested without the hope the poor plaintiffs he’s using will pay him. Another fun number I learned is that Jasper’s law firm, Reep, Bell and Jasper, represent over 600 law enforcement personnel across the state of Montana. It’s because of this representation the “selfless” Jasper is taking this on, because if he doesn’t, the stain on the badge will be bad, or something like that.
While I know Lance Jasper wanted the chance to get Ryan Funke’s opponent, Gretchen Webb, on the stand as a witness, I’m wondering if he was fully prepared for what he “won” when Judge Vannatta granted him the right to examine witnesses.
In the back and forth on whether witnesses could be called, Judge Vannatta’s limitation on Jasper led to just three witnesses taking the stand; reluctant County Attorney, Debra Jackson, the arrogantly dismissive Sheriff Toth, and candidate for Sheriff, Gretchen Webb.
Of the three witnesses, two had actual jobs under scrutiny by these writs, and were therefore the most articulate in blaming OTHER people for all the problems. While Debra Jackson’s deflections to her predecessor, Ellen Donohue, were somewhat understandable, considering Donohue’s sudden departure from her responsibilities as County Attorney, it’s the impressive performance by Sheriff Toth that requires the most attention.
Toth’s performance last November, as he defended his actions, or lack thereof, in the Barsotti case before County Commissioners, is NOTHING compared to yesterday’s Toth. And it’s with THIS particular witness that I wonder how prepared Lance Jasper was for the testimony that poured forth like a sewer overflowing in a deluge.
What were the most fun parts about Toth’s testimony? Let’s consult the notes.
But first, a little background.
Last June, some of the problematic Sheriff Deputies began getting ink in local media about their professional conduct and criminal backgrounds. Reading that article puts Lance Jasper’s aggressive questioning of Debra Jackson yesterday, so aggressive Wally Congdon actually objected to it, into an interesting context.
With Sheriff Toth, Jasper was much more deferential. Is that because his law firm represents so many people in law enforcement? Or is it because his family members are such big supporters of Sheriff hopeful, Ryan Funke? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to note.
Also interesting to note are some other Toth highlights, like how he ALREADY KNEW Shawn Visintin through his PI work, including criminal infractions in Idaho and Hawaii but, don’t worry, not the rape charge from Bozeman. So why did Toth retain Visintin as a Deputy once he was appointed Sheriff in 2020?
Sheriff Toth’s strategy on the stand was to overtly and, by insinuation, blame anyone else for what he’s ultimately responsible for. This strategy was on full display as Toth did damage control regarding the hiring of Deputy David Kunzelman.
For Missoula County voters, the first scapegoat should really be of interest, since Sheriff ELECT (Toth’s words), Jeremiah Petersen, was the one who allegedly referred Kunzelman to Toth as a “great guy” who should be hired as a Mineral County Sheriff Deputy, despite a little incident of stealing a law enforcement exam. As Captain of the Missoula County Detention Facility, Petersen’s referral carried a lot of weight with Toth.
Toth then threw shade at now Judge Marks, who at the time worked at the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, for “OK’ing” Kunzelman’s opportunity for rehire at the Sheriff’s Office in Missoula, implying this gave Toth some kind of additional cover for having to take accountability for his Sheriff Deputies in Mineral County.
And then there’s Ellen Donohue, who comes up over and over again for her convenient role of being previously responsible and currently absent to answer for herself regarding what’s being claimed. She was quite the scapegoat for Toth.
But the cherry for Lance Jasper was clearly the person with the least amount of power, the volunteer brought on by County Attorney, Debra Jackson, to help in a clerical capacity. This volunteer later decided to run for Sheriff, and it was HER alleged violation of CCJI (Confidential Criminal Justice Information) that appeared to be the REAL reason for this whole charade.
Did Gretchen Webb violate CCJI? No, she said on the stand, she did not. But she did, once upon a time, during a 30 plus credentialed law enforcement career, speak in a less than professional manner to a professional colleague, and for THAT she was run through the Mineral County wringer by a man who did NOT have to answer for his family’s political ties and his firm’s conflicts of interest, which undermine his original claim of being selfless in the pursuit of his claims against Mineral County.
At the beginning of this court hearing Lance Jasper and his co-counsel, Jordan Kilby, dramatically framed what was about to transpire as some sort of personal culmination for their legal careers. Kilby even mentioned her time as a prosecutor for Missoula County, stating that her departure from that position was the beginning of the road that led her to this legal showdown with Mineral County.
Was this grandstanding? Judge Vanatta seemed to imply yes, and had to remind counsel that this was a PROCESS and would not be remedied during the day’s proceedings.
So, what’s next? After 30 days Mineral County must disclose all defendants and cases affected by the problematic Sheriff Deputies, and counsel must have an attorney’s conference by December 15th. Before that date a status hearing will be held on December 7th.
But the date everyone in that courtroom was thinking about is November 8th, and if the Barsotti case is on the list of cases impacted, 30 days from now is two weeks too late.
It’s sad to see what politics can do inside a courtroom. I wonder how aware Judge Vannatta is of these dynamics, and I wonder if Lance Jasper’s family is proud of their boy and his attempted take-down of a political outsider.
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