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Missoula County

Twenty-seven Missoula County Public Works employees have filed a lawsuit saying the county secretly recorded their private phone calls to union officials, attorneys, doctors and spouses.

The lawsuit filed last Thursday also alleges that only union employees were targeted with the recording devices, and that non-union employees were not recorded, a new development not included in the draft complaint the Missoulian reported on in July.

The plaintiffs allege at least one manager bragged he had been eavesdropping on them for months, and after the employees raised concerns about being recorded, county officials destroyed evidence of the recordings. After that, the lawsuit said managers encouraged employees to sweep the issue under the rug in exchange for a “clothing allowance.”

Deputy County Attorney Anna Conley said she had not yet seen the complaint and would not be commenting on it if it had been filed. A Missoula County representative said Conley would be the only county employee who would be able to speak about the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Gregory McDonnell, said he thought this case was interesting because to date, no one from the county had disputed employees' claims.

“Nobody from the county has ever denied any of this actually happened. That’s probably the most important fact to date,” he said. “Usually, one side makes allegations, and the other denies it, but that is not the case here.”

The complaint cites violations of the Montana Constitution’s privacy protections and state law that protects citizens against unauthorized audio recording, in addition to the county allegedly violating a contract with employees regarding when they could be recorded.

According to the complaint, Public Works employees agreed to the installation of up to eight cameras at the Road Division Facility in 2015, under the condition the devices would not record audio and would not “be used to monitor employee work/break areas.”

In September 2018, the lawsuit states, the county installed digital recording devices in Public Works vehicles operated by unionized employees. The cameras were positioned to record out the front or rear windshield, but also recorded audio from within the cab of the vehicles, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit names 27 specific Public Works employees as the plaintiffs, and it names Missoula County, the Public Works department, and the Roads Division as defendants.

Missoula County Chief Operating Officer Chris Lounsbury said unionized workers were not targeted, but the nature of which types of vehicles are used by unionized workers, as opposed to those used by non-union management, dictated which vehicles had cameras installed.

The plaintiffs argue that within the cab of the vehicles they worked in, sometimes for shifts of more than 10 hours, they had a reasonable expectation of privacy, as one might have in a personal office.

The lawsuit says workers became aware that supervisors had live access to the camera and audio feeds in January 2019, and days later met with Public Works Assistant Director Erik Dickson, who told them the county attorney deemed the recording legal, and the employees had no legitimate grievance.

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Around the same time, employees found out the recording data were saved by Public Works, and Shawn LaDue, a manager, bragged to some employees that he had been eavesdropping on their private conversations for months, the lawsuit alleges.

Around March 12, the complaint says employees asked managers about who had listened to the audio recordings, and whether or not those recordings were saved anywhere. The next day, the lawsuit alleges, the county technology department came and took several hard drives from the Roads Division facility.

About a week later, county officials told the unions the audio data had been deleted along with any logs of who had viewed the files, and the audio recording capabilities were now disabled, the complaint says.

Dickson, the assistant director of public works, encouraged the plaintiffs to sweep the issue under the rug, and they would in turn be awarded a clothing allowance, according to court documents.

The suit also alleges that Deborah Bell, another assistant Public Works director, told employees the audio recording capabilities and data records were not “completely gone,” and the third-party device installer and maintainer could retrieve the data upon request.

Because of this, the suit states that it is unknown if the employees are still being recorded or what amount of the data is still accessible.

The employees are asking that the county be prohibited from using the audio and video recording and transmission devices, and are seeking compensation in an amount to be proven in a trial.

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