The Missoula County Republican Women and its state parent group have filed a lawsuit against the county organization's former leader and treasurer after what the suit describes as a "prolonged scorched-earth war” for control.
The lawsuit pits state and local Republican women leaders against the head of the Missoula Republican Central Committee.
Sarah Weber was elected in December as the new president of the county GOP women's group, taking the place of former club president Vondene Kopetski, who is also chair of the county's GOP Central Committee.
Weber took office in January and, in April, asked the elected treasurer Jill Chapman to resign because she was not attending meetings and had not produced financial reports, the lawsuit says. Kopetski said Weber did not have the authority to remove an elected officer without board approval, and that as president Weber had stopped holding regular board meetings.
Kopetski and Chapman, as well as two other board members, requested Weber call a meeting to discuss the treasurer change.
The lawsuit says Weber told them she would, but that bylaws required her to provide five days notice for a special meeting. Kopetski said they didn’t hear back from Weber, and four members of the board — all of its members apart from Weber and another person — held their own meeting.
The morning of that meeting, the lawsuit alleges, Chapman went into the bank and emptied the club's bank account of $1,200. The splinter group then voted to oust the new president after what they claimed was a "thorough investigation,'' the lawsuit says.
Kopetski said Chapman did remove the money from the bank because of uncertainty over Weber’s actions. She said she later spoke with a detective at the sheriff’s office and an attorney at the Missoula County Attorney’s Office about the entire situation.
Sheriff T.J. McDermott confirmed Thursday that Kopetski did meet with a detective who looked into the matter.
“After consulting with the County Attorney’s Office, we determined that it was a civil matter and encouraged her to talk with a private attorney,” he said.
McDermott said they also told Kopetski she may want to put the money into a trust account until the civil issue was resolved, which Kopetski said she did.
Kopetski told the Missoulian on Thursday there is “absolutely no truth” to any of the allegations and called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
“This is nothing more than an orchestrated smear campaign,” she said.
Kopetski said she “coerced” Weber into becoming the president after deciding she had too many other obligations and wanted a new leader for the women’s group that Kopetski co-founded four years ago.
Since April, Kopetski has claimed that she is the president of the Missoula County Republican Women, the lawsuit said, even appearing at a statewide Republican meeting wearing a name tag identifying her as the club's president.
Kopetski said the vast majority of the members have continued to meet with her and the other three members of the board that voted to oust Weber.
“They have allegeded that I’m like the Pied Piper and everyone followed me. These are my friends,” she said.
The lawsuit says Kopetski’s group is using the Missoula County Republican Women’s federal tax identification number and has withheld login information that allows the group to file mandatory reports of campaign activity to the state Commissioner of Political Practices. Kopetski said she registered the ID number in her name and it was only ever used to start the bank account when the group was founded.
The suit also alleges that Weber discovered that Kopetski had altered donation checks before she left the president's job last year to divert money from its intended purpose to a different political account with the state GOP. Kopetski said what was done with the checks was all done with board approval, that Weber has only recently brought it up as an issue and is using it as a “smokescreen.”
Weber enlisted the help of the local chapter's parent group, the Montana Federation of Republican Women, to attempt to regain stability and have the club's funds returned, the lawsuit said.
After an internal investigation and trial by the state group, the actions of Kopetski and Chapman were deemed invalid and they were expelled from the organization. Following multiple cease and desist letters and demands that the club's property be returned, the local organization and the state parent company filed a lawsuit against the former members.
"In this case, the Federation has painstakingly exhausted all internal administrative remedies and now finds legal action is the only option left to help the club recover its assets and return to peaceful operations,” the state agency wrote in a statement.
Kopetski said the state investigation refused to consider documentation she provided disputing Weber’s claims, and that she doesn’t believe the state group has any right to regulate local membership.
“It is stunning to us that the Federation can come into a local club and tell them what to do,” she said.
The lawsuit claims that Kopetski continues to send emails to members of the group arranging different times and places for meetings. It seeks to bar Kopetski from using the club's name and logo, as well as seeking return of funds and monetary damages.