A lawsuit filed in Meagher County alleges the sheriff illegally fired a deputy who sought to stop law enforcement and other public officials in Montana from owning or working in bars.
Former undersheriff David Wendt brought the wrongful termination case against Meagher County and Sheriff Jon Lopp on Nov. 13.
The district court complaint says that in 2017, Wendt proposed legislation that would stop sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, police officers, judges, and city and county attorneys from managing, working in or owning bars or taverns. Meagher County Attorney Kimberly Deschene and Justice of the Peace Paula Wildman both have ownership stakes in such businesses in White Sulphur Springs, according to the complaint.
Bar 47, Deschene's property, is at the center of a long-running conflict-of-interest battle in Meagher County. According to reporting by the Billings Gazette, Deschene has been plagued by concerns about her ability to run one of the few bars in town while prosecuting DUI offenders. Lopp has previously criticized Deschene's prosecution of those crimes, saying the conviction rate is too low. Other county officials have denied any conflict exists.
In 2016, Deschene faced a potential liquor license suspension for transferring ownership of the bar without her partner's final signature and locking the bar during business hours when a deputy was trying to get inside.
Wendt's complaint says he presented his proposed legislation to Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, who introduced a narrower version of the bill during the 2017 legislative session. Deschene publicly opposed the revised bill, which would have stopped county attorneys from owning bars.
“I think this bill is just aimed directly at me by a very small group of people who think it’s wrong and have no basis for that feeling,” Deschene told the House Judiciary Committee, which heard the bill. “ ... Although the county attorney position is very important, what Bar 47 has done for the town is at least as important as the job of county attorney.”
Though the bill failed in committee, the complaint alleges Lopp disciplined Wendt for his work on the legislation.
Meanwhile, Wendt decided to run against Lopp in the 2018 election for sheriff and entered the Republican primary on March 8, 2018. According to the complaint, on March 13, 2018, Meagher County Commissioner Ben Hurwitz said at a county meeting that if "someone runs against their boss for office, they should be fired."
Wendt was fired on April 2.
"You had no business acting as an unofficial lobbyist in promoting legislation targeting the current Meagher County Attorney," the termination letter reads.
The complaint also states Wendt had been unfairly disciplined for giving intoxicated individuals rides home and failing to turn on a body camera for "minor or non-incidents" and alleges that those policies had not been enforced against any other Meagher County law enforcement officers.
"Defendants intentionally discriminated against Wendt on the basis of political beliefs and activities and retaliated against Wendt for his protected activities, all in direct violation of Montana law," the complaint says.
Wendt is seeking an unspecified amount of damages, attorneys' fees and costs, reinstatement to his former position, and other relief deemed proper by the court.
Editor's note -- This story has been updated to correct Meagher County Attorney Kimberly Deschene's first name.